SA telecoms soon liberated

Cape Town - Telecommunications Minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri put the cat among the pigeons on Thursday when she unexpectedly announced amendments to the Telecommunications Act.

Not only does the amendments make it possible to create a so-called virtual telecommunications network, but it also enables any organisation to offer telephone services such as payphones and laying cables. Other services, such as voice calls over data networks such as the internet (VoIP), will also be legal now.

Matsepe-Casaburri said the amendments were part of government's aim to "reduce costs, stimulate competition and growth and expand the availability of services".

This is in line with President Thabo Mbeki's promise to reduce the cost of doing business in South Africa.

The amendments, which come into effect on February 1 next year, include the following:

  • Cellphone companies may now use any supplier's fixed lines - thus far, cellphone service providers were dependent on Telkom for the provision of connection lines;

  • The provision of payphone facilities and equipment will be expanded to allow any person or organisation to apply for a licence in any area. A licence will soon not be necessary anymore.

  • Any value-adding service provider (VANS) will be able to provide voice transmission over any medium, including the internet.

  • Any business can offer value-adding services. Consumers will therefore no longer be reliant on Telkom or the promised second fixed-line operator;

  • Private telecommunication services and equipment may be traded and companies with private internal network services will be able to sell, rent out or transfer the rights of excess facility and capacity. Matsepe-Casaburri said this would result in better utilisation of equipment and facilities.

"I believe the minister realised that there is no difference between data, voice and video over a network. They are all forms of information and should be treated the same," said Jason Goodall, CEO of Dimension Data (Didata).

Goodall and Hillel Schrok, director of Didata's subsidiary, Internet Solutions, said the group has been making preparations in anticipation of the announcement for some time and is already testing virtual voice and telecommunication services at certain clients.

Tim Parsonson, director of the IT group Storm, said the use of the internet and companies' data networks could save businesses up to 70% in international calls. Storm already has several virtual networks that are being tested at clients.

Arthur Goldstuck, analyst and head of World Wide Worx, said the minister's decision to deregulate the telecommunications industry was a sign of a strong political will and was her first step to regain control of the industry.

"A lot of the old legislation was outdated and was created only to protect Telkom," Goldstuck said.

Ravin Maharaj, spokesperson for Telkom, said the group wasn't warned or consulted before the announcement.

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