Siyabonga Cwele — PICTURE: GCIS

 

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more Monty Pythonesque in the telecoms sector, it emerges that the communications minister is suing the regulator for publishing its intention to auction off spectrum for superfast cellular broadband.

Which minister are we referring to, you may ask?

This time it’s not the storm of controversy that follows foot-in-mouth pronouncements of communications minister Faith Muthambi (though she is embroiled in another scandal over a TV licence, which we will get to shortly).

The minister now suing his own regulator — the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) — is telecommunications & postal services minister Siyabonga Cwele.

After years of delays and uncertainty, Icasa last month gave notice that it would auction much-needed spectrum used for the long-term evolution of cellular broadband.

The usually passive Icasa was roundly applauded by the telecoms industry for being decisive in the face of seeming indifference from government over this vital sector of the economy.

You could be forgiven for not knowing which minister was involved in this latest fracas, given how fractured and chaotic the communications ministry is — and has been even before President Jacob Zuma split this dysfunctional department in two and appointed two incompetent ministers to head what are now effectively warring factions.

It’s impressive that Cwele has managed to wrest the headlines away from Muthambi, who has often appeared in the news to defend the controversial chief operating officer of the SABC, Hlaudi Motsoeneng.

She’s equally known for failing to implement digital terrestrial television (DTT), for which the globally agreed-to cut-off date was June last year.

Muthambi’s meddling in this, going counter to her own party’s policy, has caused endless delays and innumerable court challenges. But it’s hard to understand her logic, especially given her regular public defence of Motsoeneng.

Muthambi’s most recent intervention with Icasa was revealed last month after accusations that she tried to influence Icasa councillor Nomvuyiso Batyi unduly, with an offer to become the body’s chair if she granted a licence to another Gupta-owned television station.

Which brings us back to the seemingly inexplicable legal challenge by Cwele.

The spectrum to be auctioned is crucial for the next generation of broadband.

It makes it cheaper and more effective for cellular networks to deliver the wireless Internet access we all depend on.

Icasa intends to auction off four blocks of frequencies for R3bn each.

This is being hotly contested by a range of smaller operators, who quite rightly point out that a R3-billion price tag keeps the current big players in the running while excluding new entrants and smaller operations.

There’s a lot of logic to this, and it seems to clash with the counter-argument, which goes: to make use of this new spectrum effectively, you need the kind of financial muscle that the big networks alone seem to possess. New players would be required to saddle themselves with huge debt — or take on investors to make a new going concern.

It’s my job as a columnist to explain what is going on in this crucial economic driver of a sector. But I am forced to admit defeat. As an investigative reporter I was taught to "follow the money" — a sure-fire way of calculating whose interests are best being served by inexplicable decisions involving vast amounts of lucre and government tenders.

But the mess of vested interests and hidden agendas behind the split telecoms ministries and their empire-building ministers is too much like the script of a Monty Python skit to explain.

Meanwhile the Ministry of Funny Walks continues battling the Ministry of Hlaudi-protection and DTT interference. If it weren’t so tragic, it might even be funny. — Financial  Mail

Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff magazine

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