South African telcos rejoice as government suspends Electronic Communications Amendment Bill

South Africa has decided to withdraw its proposed controversial bill, the  Electronic Communications Amendment (ECA) Bill which is aimed at regulating infrastructure sharing in the telecommunications sector. The bill, which deals with the allocation of spectrum for mobile networks and the establishment of the Wholesale Open Access Network (WOAN) was withdrawn through a letter to the parliamentary portfolio committee on telecommunications signed by Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.

Ndabeni-Abrahams stated that the decision was because the parliament was unlikely to finalise the bill during the remainder of the current term and for that, it would be best to withdraw the bill to enable further consultations. “We need a holistic, forward-looking approach instead of ad hoc amendments to the existing legislation,” Ndabeni-Abrahams said.

Initially, the government said the bill was aimed at driving down communications costs by facilitating the entry of more players, but this did not go down well with telecommunications companies and mobile services providers who criticised the move. They claimed that the ECA will result in a massive failure by the government and delay much-needed allocation of radio spectrum.

The government also said that the bill was meant to improve competition, regulation and infrastructure-sharing in the sector amid a spectrum crunch. When it comes to spectrum allocation and WOAN, the government had noted that spectrum may be taken away from licensed network operators but after mobile networks showed their displeasure to the government, a compromise was reached.

In 2018, Vodacom CEO Shameel Joosub said that the company supports a compromise between existing regulations and the WOAN proposed by the government. Telkom CEO Sipho Maseko, on the other hand, did not think the WOAN policy was the ideal way forward. Following the withdrawal of the bill, Maseko noted that the government’s objectives for the telecommunications sector can be achieved within the current legislative framework.

“In particular, we are encouraged that the ministry holds the view that the private sector must play a greater role in the development of the telecommunications industry,” Joosub said.