The regulation of over-the-top (OTT) Internet services will likely hinder information and communication technology (ICT) development across Africa as it will stifle broadband access, the Internet Service Providers' Association (Ispa) said on Monday.
Mobile operators and networks needed to develop innovative solutions to coexist with OTT players to unlock the potential of the new-generation services to democratise communication and drive the uptake of broadband, Ispa chairperson Graham Beneke said.
Internet participation was increasingly dependent on OTTs, particularly as services such as WhatsApp, Google Talks, Skype and WeChat, besides many others, were favoured by mobile users as a cheaper, modern alternative to sending messages, making calls and interacting online.
OTT services made use of a mobile operator’s data networks, allowing users to bypass SMSing or traditional voice calls to communicate using data tariffs.
However, South Africa's mobile network operators, concerned about the impact on their revenues, were requesting that Parliament consider passing legislation or regulations pertaining to data services on mobile networks such that operators generate revenue for carrying the data services on their bandwidth infrastructure.
The Portfolio Committee on Telecommunications and Postal Services planned to meet on Tuesday to “create a platform” for policymakers, industry regulators, OTT service providers, network operators and other affected stakeholders to discuss possible resolutions to the challenges.
Consideration would 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 to be defined as telecommunications services or telecommunications infrastructure and be subject to licensing and regulatory obligations.
Regulating OTT services, however, would be a “technical nightmare” to enforce and would “simply encourage” the growth of other lesser-known messaging applications, Beneke argued.
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.
“History tells us that you cannot regulate progress out of existence. Imagine how the gross domestic product-boosting growth of cellular phones in South Africa would have been constrained if Telkom had decided in 1994 to approach Parliament with the unworkable idea that landlines and cellphones should be bundled together to protect its monopoly?” Beneke said.
“OTTs offer an affordable alternative to the millions of South Africans who cannot afford to make a call or to pay 50c each time they send a single SMS," he added.