Icasa: please don’t call us

2009-10-17 11:16

WE ALL know that we get ripped off by the cellular phone companies.

But until now, South Africa’s consumers have done what we do: complained and

then sent another “Please call me”.

SA’s mobile phone costs are among the highest in the world. In a

basket of similar countries, we rate second only to Brazil, where

telecommunications have not been liberalised.

India’s call costs are much lower, as are China’s. And colleagues

who live and travel on the rest of our continent know you can talk up a storm

for much much less than we pay here.

In Ghana, contract packages are more flexible and pay as you go

much cheaper and ­easier to access. Even in the ­expensive Democratic Republic

of Congo, it’s cheaper to talk than in SA.

Our mobile companies that operate in the rest of Africa are more

price-sensitive in those markets than they are here. And more creative too.

Vodacom, for example, has cut ­roaming costs across the East African region.

But try crossing the border from South Africa to Zimbabwe or

Mozambique and you’ll get the shock of your life to see what you pay in roaming

costs. The mobile industry operates like cowboys in South Africa because they

can.

The regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of South

Africa (Icasa), is supposed to be the public watchdog but it is ­perfectly

­useless. This is why government had to step in last week to issue a policy

directive insisting that the costs of connecting phones across networks must

come down by Christmas.

This is not a good thing to do as government should not be

dictating pricing when there is a regulator with the power to ensure that the

industry is competitive and consumer- ­friendly.

But for years, Icasa has been allowed to fester and corrode to the

point it has now reached. It is headed by what insiders say is a largely

absentee chairperson, Paris Mashile. He loves travelling and is often out of the

country. The proof that his eye is off the ball lies in the fact that government

moved this week to bring down mobile phone costs.

If Icasa was doing its work, this would have happened a long time

ago. But the other ­example, of course, is that Icasa has for years not

monitored whether or not the SABC has stayed within its licensing conditions. If

it had, the public broadcaster would not have imploded in the way it now has.

Administration at Icasa is in a shambles with long licence waiting

lists. This week staff threatened to strike over a wage dispute but there are

suggestions that many have lost faith in their leadership.

Most South Africans own a mobile phone or two or even three. It is

good that somebody is playing watchdog – pity it’s not the body we pay to do

that job for us.


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