South Africa changes mind and cancels open wholesale mobile network

13 February 2019 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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The South African government has withdrawn plans for an open-access wholesale mobile network, a proposal that was widely criticised by operators.

Communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams (pictured) announced that she was withdrawing a parliamentary bill to amend the communications law “as we are now required to think anew”.

Though she did not mention the proposed Wholesale Open Access Network (WOAN) in her statement on the Electronic Communications Amendment Bill, the industry has welcomed its withdrawal: one of its main provisions would have been to hive off some of operators’ wireless spectrum for an open wholesale network that would be accessible to all-comers.

CEOs of Vodacom and even state-owned Telkom criticised the idea when it was first raised. They were joined by the mobile industry’s global trade association, the GSMA, which produced a report in 2017 saying that projects around the world were “plagued by slow progression and delayed or cancelled launches” – with one exception, Rwanda.   

The GSMA looked at projects in Kenya, Mexico, Russia and South Africa and said: “Network competition produces faster and more extensive network coverage, and the examples highlighted in the report indicate little evidence that a [wholesale radio network] is likely to achieve this.”

Vodacom CEO Shameel Joosub welcomed the move. “We are encouraged that the ministry holds the view that the private sector must play a greater role in the development of the telecommunications industry,” he told South African media. He said the government’s objective “can be achieved within the current legislative framework”, implying the now withdrawn bill was not needed.

In her ministerial statement, Ndabeni-Abrahams said: “The Fourth Industrial Revolution is in our midst which calls for us to rethink our approach to everything we do, including the kind of institutions that will lead and enable the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” She said the ministry would work “with other stakeholders within and outside government”.

She said: “We need a holistic forward looking approach instead of ad hoc amendments to the existing legislation.”