Online publishers slam ‘bully’ Telkom

The Online Publishers’ Association (OPA) has lashed out at Telkom for holding the country to ransom over a decision made by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) this week that the operator may not charge added monthly fees to ADSL subscribers.

Icasa’s decision was based on hearings held in response to at least 46 complaints made by consumers regarding Telkom’s ADSL offering. Icasa’s findings in this matter stated that, “In the interest of consumer protection, Telkom may only charge a once-off access fee and, thereafter, charges are to be restricted to line rental only.”

Telkom is set to take legal action against Icasa and has threatened a blanket cut-off of its ADSL services on which many businesses depend.

Russell Hanly, chairperson of the OPA, said: “Members of the OPA watch helplessly from the sidelines while Telkom bullies and undermines Icasa. The growth in our industry, which broadband access can deliver, continues to be thwarted.”

“Regardless of whether Icasa did their homework or not on the technical aspects, the facts still speak for themselves. South Africa is slipping further and further behind other African countries and developing markets such as India and China. In the year 2000 we had 50% of all the internet connections in Africa; now we are down to 25%. Telkom is the gateway to internet access in this country and continues to be a law unto itself,” said Hanly.

The OPA represents the top 22 online publishers in South Africa, including the Mail & Guardian Online.

Telkom spokesperson Xolisa Vapi told the Mail & Guardian Online that “there is a fundamental misunderstanding about how our ADSL network is designed and about cost elements. We’re hoping to resolve this misunderstanding with Icasa”.

He said they had been in contact with Icasa this week.

“The misunderstanding is not based on facts. We have to explain how the ADSL system is designed because it is not sustainable when we don’t charge for the service.”

He said they had not increased their ADSL price since it was introduced in 2002.

Online readership research carried out by respected media measurement company Nielsen/Netratings has shown that the number of internet users in South Africa is increasing steadily, with the latest unique browser figure of 4,6 million and 115 million page impressions for June this year.

This number encompasses both local and international traffic on OPA member websites. Traffic originating from South Africa makes up 37% of the total readership figure, and 87% of the total page impressions.

“Increased local online activity means more online sales for retailers. There is no doubt that this is a growing and sustainable market that is creating a wealth of opportunity for the consumer industry,” said Hanly.

The OPA said Telkom’s threat is unreasonable and may have far-reaching consequences for the South African economy. It said e-commerce and online publishing could be severely affected.

Marc Furman, legal manager at Internet Solutions, said he supports the OPA’s view of Icasa’s decision.

“Telkom has made certain comments regarding the findings which highlight the critical importance of expediting real competition in the telecoms market, and broadband in particular.

“If one operator holds all the cards, online consumers lose out. Telkom stated in its response that there is indeed competition in the market with players such as Sentech, WBS and the cellular operators providing broadband services, but Telkom still holds the monopoly on fixed-line broadband infrastructure. We would like to see Icasa moving quickly to implement regulations that would be of greatest benefit to the online industry and consumers.”

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