Icasa acts against licence fee defaulters

2013-04-07 10:00

Icasa has taken the plunge and launched a countrywide compliance drive against deadbeat licensees – starting with a crippling seizure of equipment from Wireless Business Solutions (WBS), the parent of internet service providers iBurst and Broadlink.

WBS has been mired in controversy after widely reported allegations by Icasa councillor Joseph Lebooa that he was hijacked and threatened by men commanding him to stop pursuing the company’s unpaid fees in January.

Questions about the company and others known to owe Icasa hundreds of millions of rands were put to Icasa a week and a half ago in a heated meeting of the portfolio committee on communications, say opposition members of the committee.

Icasa seized radio equipment from six WBS sites around Gauteng this week after criticism of the communications authority mounted, owing to perceptions of its inability to collect fees and police the use of South Africa’s limited radio spectrum.

The seizures caused a blackout across the WBS networks in the province, which affected up to 75% of clients.

By Friday, the company was promising customers it would work tirelessly to restore their connectivity while negotiations with Icasa are ongoing.

Icasa, however, plans to keep WBS from using bandwidth until a deal is brokered on the fees, says Icasa spokesperson Paseka Maleka.

“We are engaging a lot of people, but only WBS is being targeted for seizures, for now. We don’t just go seize equipment out of the blue. It is a last resort,” he said, adding: “There is nothing unusual about these operations.

“We are still running the figures,” Maleka says, when asked how much money WBS owes Icasa.

The communications body has come under fire from the Auditor-General for “lack of controls over the invoicing and collection of licence fee revenue”, which makes it hard to establish how much money is owed.

All broadcasters or electronic communications providers have to pay for their initial licence and then also pay annual fees related to their income.

WBS is accused not only of not paying fees, but of illegally adding “links” to its existing licences and using more spectrum than it is allowed.

» The raid on WBS coincides with the introduction of a game-changing new fee system for licensees, gazetted over Easter. The new system levies licence fees on revenue rather than “gross profit”.

On the one hand, this hurts small and marginal service providers, but on the other hand, Icasa believes it may now actually be able to collect fees.

Disputes around what “gross profit” actually is has been one of Icasa’s excuses for failing to collect the fees, leading to a qualified audit last year.

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