Icasa urged to cut 'excessive' cellphone call charges

MPs on Tuesday urged the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) to act speedily to reduce the cost of cellphone call charges in South Africa.

During a National Assembly communications committee meeting, the African National Congress’s Johnny de Lange called for Icasa to use its powers to set a concrete timetable for this.

He also proposed that the cellphone industry appear before the committee—possibly in October—to explain the problems it faced, the costs it charged, and to account for the profits made.

It seemed that the industry had a “friendly regulator” in Icasa, which was not they way it was supposed to be, he said.

The industry was doing “terrible things” to the people of South Africa because of their high charges.

Every minute’s delay in action by Icasa allowed the industry to continue to make exorbitant profits.

He urged Icasa, as the independent regulator, to make decisions speedily.

Committee chairperson Ismail Vavi said the charges were “excessive, exorbitant and exceptionally high”, and had to be reassessed urgently.

A critical junction had been reached and Icasa had to make urgent decisions to end this intolerable situation.

De Lange’s ANC colleague, Eric Kolwane, criticised Icasa for allowing the industry to “negotiate among themselves”.

The outcome of negotiations for lower charges could not be determined by the industry alone.

Icasa had to take the shortest route possible to reduce charges and this had to be done by December at the latest, Kolwane said.

The Independent Democrats’s Patricia de Lille also wanted Icasa to act immediately to reduce charges and the “obscene profits” being made by the industry.

South Africa’s cellphone rates were among the highest in the world.

The reason for the delay in reducing charges was because operators wanted to “rake in the millions” to be made over the festive season, she said.

Earlier, Icasa councillors, led by chairperson Paris Mashile, told the committee the authority was concerned about the high cost of cellphone communications. However, it was a negotiated process that took time.

Out of the nine Icasa councillors, four were focusing on this issue.

Icasa councillor Thabo Makhakhe said the authority had released regulations in mid-2008, but the industry raised substantial concerns about the process followed.

Icasa needed to gather more information before it could impose effective regulations, he said.

This included sending questionnaires to operators by the end of this month, evaluating the responses and designing proportionate pro-competitive remedies.

The third step would be to draft regulations imposing these remedies by February/March next year.

In addition, Icasa had adopted a “moral suasion” approach with the industry to negotiate reduced charges.

Icasa had met with Telkom, Neotel, Vodacom, MTN, Cell C, and the representative body of all other operators, ISPA, earlier this month, and an industry-led voluntary negotiation process to reduce charges had been formed.
The next meeting was scheduled for October 9, he said.

Mashile said it was hoped the industry would present its proposals by December.

Makhakhe said Icasa was fully aware of the need to reduce rates, but this had to be done according to “due process”.

The Icasa councillors voiced concern that if this was not done, the industry would try to delay matters through lengthy court action, which Icasa wanted to avoid.

However, MPs from all sides of the House were unanimous that further delays were unacceptable and urgent action on Icasa’s part was now necessary.—Sapa

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