More stakeholders are coming out in support of over-the-top (OTT) players, with the South African Communications Forum (SACF) now saying that it might be too early to regulate the popular communication services.
Presenting its views this week during a Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Telecommunications and Postal Services sitting, the nonprofit industry association echoed the National Integrated Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Policy Review Report’s stance of adopting a ‘wait-and-see’ approach to OTTs to prevent the stifling of innovation.
The ICT Policy, which was published in March last year, stipulated that the impact of OTT services should be continually monitored and regulatory intervention introduced, if deemed necessary.
Currently, only network operators had to comply with regulatory licence conditions and South African laws; MTN South Africa and Vodacom had been rallying to get OTT’s regulated, voicing concerns of potential impacts on their revenue.
Despite providing their services over local networks, international OTTs were not licensed and were not required to adhere to the same licensing, regulatory, legal and tax regimes as South African companies.
“This uneven application of regulations and obligations has an impact on competition which must be further explored [particularly as] the impact of OTTs on the South African ICT ecosystem is of increasing importance,” said SACF CEO Loren Braithwaite-Kabosha.
Earlier this week, News24Wire reported that OTT players Facebook, Microsoft and Google were opposed to possible OTT regulations, saying they were not harming mobile operators’ bottom lines and they would defend their operating rights in South Africa.
Earlier reports suggested that the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa planned to launch an inquiry to look at the impact of OTT services, like WhatsApp and Skype, on the data services market.
However, the regulator was quoted by SA News as saying it would let the market “evolve” while monitoring its impact. It would only intervene at a later stage, if necessary.
The Internet Service Providers' Association (Ispa) argued that consideration should be given to regulatory interventions on the guidelines to regulate OTTs; the necessary policy interventions on how to govern OTTs; the impact of OTTs on competition; and if OTTs should be defined as telecommunications services or telecommunications infrastructure and be subject to licensing and regulatory obligations.
While OTT players did not make any direct contribution towards the cost of rolling out infrastructure, changes were inevitable and likely disruptive and inconvenient for those with a stake in existing arrangements. However, the benefits of change outweighed the costs,” outlined the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services in its Policy Review paper.
“Regulators cannot hold back the tides of change to maintain the status quo,” it said.
Braithwaite-Kabosha added that OTTs impact consumers, the cost to communicate, access to the Internet, and the development of South African network operators and services.
“The expanded accessibility of Internet services in the growth of OTT services depends on the availability and access to the Internet at affordable prices. Access to the Internet is key to South Africa’s future and the economic and equitable development of the future of South Africa,” she said.
Meanwhile, OTT players, as members of the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ that were reshaping the ICT industry, were encouraging traditional operators and service providers to leave their comfort zones of past successes to become highly competitive innovators of new products and services.
Ispa chairperson Graham Beneke noted that mobile operators and networks needed to develop innovative solutions to coexist with OTT players to unlock the potential of the new-generation services, which would democratise communication and drive the uptake of broadband.
Beneke added that Internet participation was increasingly dependent on OTTs, particularly as services such as WhatsApp, Google Talk, Skype and WeChat, among many others, were favoured by mobile users as a cheaper, modern alternative to sending messages, making calls and interacting online.
The Wi-Fi Forum of South Africa agreed, saying mobile networks needed to develop innovative ways to benefit from OTT technologies or risk redundancy.
“The Internet cannot be governed and must be embraced,” chairperson Andile Ngcaba said, calling the attempts to regulate OTT services misguided.
“Far from being a threat, OTT applications such as WhatsApp are motivating to Africa's youth. Every young person wants to develop the next WhatsApp and we should be encouraging the building and exporting of apps, not trying to wish them away in a spirit of complacency," he added.
Cell C, which was in favour of OTT, said regulation would impose new costs that could trigger the OTT players to withdraw their services from South Africa or push up prices for the consumer.