Over-the-top internet services, such as WhatsApp, could be regulated in South Africa depending on the outcome of planned Parliament hearings this month.
Over-the-top services - which range from WhatsApp to Skype and Google Hangouts - allow users to make messages and calls over data networks - often at comparatively lower costs than traditional telephone calls or SMS.
OTT services like WhatsApp have rocketed in usage in South Africa with over ten-million users in the country, according to a recent report by World Wide Worx and Fuseware.
Amid this growth, South Africa's two biggest mobile networks Vodacom and MTN last year called for regulation of OTT services in South Africa.
Subsequently, the Portfolio Committee on Telecommunications and Postal Services has confirmed to Fin24 that it has scheduled hearings into the possible regulation of OTT services in South Africa on January 26.
A notice of the planned hearings, which was sent to relevant stakeholders, says the hearings are set to discuss “necessary policy interventions on how to govern OTTs, regulatory interventions on the guidelines to regulate OTTs” and the “impact of OTTs on competition”.
Another topic to be discussed at the hearings is whether “there (is) a need for the OTTs to be defined as telecom services (voice or data) or telecom infrastructure, and thus whether they should be subject to licensing and regulatory obligations (such as legal intercept and emergency call access) or not?”
The committee is trying to secure a venue for the hearings which are planned to be open to the public, the secretary of the committee, Hajiera Salie, told Fin24. More details about the hearings will be provided later this month, Salie added.
It’s unclear who will be presenting at the hearings at this stage.
Regulation risks being 'ludicrous'
Dominic Cull, who is a communications regulatory expert at Ellipsis Regulatory Solutions, said he has received a notice of the hearings.
Cull said it looks as if mobile networks “still have some lobbying power in terms of getting these matters before bodies like Parliament”.
"WhatsApp is obviously in the forefront. You know why the mobiles (mobile networks) are upset: It's a revenue question. But we're also talking about TeamViewer, Google Hangouts, Viber etc,” Cull told Fin24.
Cull said a challenge about regulating OTT is that “just about everything provided over the network could be regarded as an OTT”.
"Once you can't divide them up, it obviously becomes ludicrous to try and regulate them,” Cull added.
He further said that there are two “fascinating” points to watch regarding the OTT regulation hearings later this month.
"The parties which are in the firing line here - in terms of the regulation - are not the usual suspects such as ISPs (internet service providers) and smaller players looking to compete. We're talking about Facebook, Google, Microsoft and the like,” Cull told Fin24.
"So, we're talking about substantial multinationals that have an interest here.
"And the second thing is that this is one of the rare telecommunications issues which people get. So, they understand WhatsApp. They know what it means to the spend on communication,” Cull said.