Minister of Communications Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams has withdrawn the Electronic Communications Amendment Bill… for now.
At a meeting with the Portfolio Committee on Telecommunications and Postal Services, Ndabeni-Abrahams, said the expansion of the ministry’s mandate and the reconfigured department had implications for policy and legislation. President Cyril Ramaphosa late last year announced the amalgamation of the communications, and telecommunications and postal services departments, headed now by Ndabeni-Abrahams.
This move, said Ndabeni-Abrahams, meant new thinking was required, particularly around the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, which the communications department had been mandated to spearhead, and which required working with other stakeholders within and outside government. “We need a holistic forward looking approach instead of ad hoc amendments to the existing legislation,” she said.
Ndabeni-Abrahams added that this required her department to “rethink the approach to everything we do, including the kind of institutions that will lead and enable the Fourth Industrial Revolution”.
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The bill was tabled before Parliament in October 2018, followed by public hearings involving various stakeholders including the regulated firms.
DA spokesperson on telecommunications and postal services, Marian Shinn, welcomed the decision. She said the controversial bill had “for three years pitted the information communications technology (ICT) sector against the DTPS”.
“We welcome her emphasis on the proposed minimal role that government will play as it realises that the private sector is best able to drive telecommunications advances to the benefit of the entire nation,” Shinn said in a statement. “She said government will focus on regulatory and policy matters.”
Shinn said the DA had via the committee questioned the constitutionality of the Bill, and its tagging in the parliamentary process. She said there were also concerns over the “vast chasm caused by DTPS’ attempts at ‘radically’ transforming the sector through emasculation of the Chapter Nine independence of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), the centralisation of regulation and power over the sector in the minister and department, the legal establishment of an ostensible private sector consortium Wireless Open Access Network (WOAN) that would be handed prize high-demand spectrum, and the infringement on local governments’ operations in granting infrastructure build permissions”.
The minister said of specific issues raised in the report of the Committee on the Bill would be considered as part of further consultations with the stakeholders. She said preliminary engagements had started already, and would continue “with emphasis on the need for active collaboration underpinned by the non-negotiable quest to create an inclusive and people centred Fourth Industrial Revolution and the digital economy”.
Good news for many
The news will come as a welcome relief to many who have raised serious concerns about the bill’s implications. The Free Market Foundation’s executive director, Leon Louw, at the time said the bill in its current form would “bring a complete freeze to any further growth and development of the existing operators and any future roll out will depend entirely on the efficiency of a state run entity”.
It wasn’t just telecommunications companies which would be impacted by the Bill, media houses were at risk too. Louw explained, “There will be no effective rollout of 5G, they (media houses) will depend on cables and local wi-fi. The message for them is they better fight this bill because it’s very bad news for them from a point of view of using data for media coverage. As simple a thing as watching TV online will not be possible, if this bill is passed.”
It will be interesting to see how the way forward for the Electronic Communications Amendment Bill unfolds, with this latest development.
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