February 13, 2019 / 1:24 PM / 5 months ago

South Africa's Vodacom, Telkom welcome ECA bill withdrawal

JOHANNESBURG, Feb 13 (Reuters) - South African mobile network operators Vodacom and Telkom on Wednesday welcomed a government decision to withdraw a bill, which proposed taking back licensed spectrum from operators and forcing them to share a national network.

On Tuesday the Minister of Communications Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams withdrew the Electronic Communications Amendment (ECA) Bill, which was put before parliament in October 2018, to allow for further consultations and to align it with a drive towards a more digital economy.

The withdrawal was also because parliament was unlikely to finalise the bill during the remainder of the current term, the ministry of communications said in a statement.

The move ends uncertainty over a policy which has been criticised by industry, with the proposed Wireless Open Access Network (WOAN) seen to have negative consequences after the government suggested mobile operators would not get new frequencies and needed to hand back what they had.

“Vodacom is of the view that government’s objectives for the sector – in terms of increasing the affordability and reach of broadband, and accelerating economic transformation - can be achieved within the current legislative framework,” Vodacom Group Chief Executive, Shameel Joosub said in a statement.

“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.”

Vodacom has proposed an alternative hybrid model- comprising a competitive WOAN with the opportunity for current operators to access spectrum.

Telkom also welcomed the withdrawal, saying by email: “we think this is an opportunity for government to engage with the sector and agree on a set of priorities to inspire investments that will promote growth and effective competition.”

Meanwhile MTN noted the decision and said it would await further clarity, while Cell C’s Chief Legal Officer Graham Mackinnon said he was “quite surprised” it had been withdrawn.

The ministry said specific issues raised would be considered as part of further consultations with all stakeholders.

The initial draft proposed taking back spectrum from licensed operators to give to WOAN.

Creating a single open-access network lies at the heart of a government goal to roll out mobile broadband access and drive down high data prices hampering business development. (Reporting by Nqobile Dludla; editing by David Evans)

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