Thursday, October 25, 2007

South Africa - roaming

No international roaming in SA?

[ Johannesburg, 24 October 2007 ] - Changes to an already controversial law, pushed through the National Assembly by the justice department as a crime-fighting measure, may instead hinder global trade and wreck the tourism industry, say local mobile phone operators.

The providers have warned the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) – Parliament's upper chamber – that planned amendments to the Regulation of Interception of Communication and Provision of Communication-related Information Act (RICA), if enacted, result in the blanket switch-off of international roaming facilities to all foreign visitors.

Cell C, MTN and Vodacom said it would also leave them in breach of hundreds of interconnect agreements. These agreements allow South Africans to roam abroad and visitors to use their mobile phones while visiting our shores.

“SA should try to avoid being the one country in the world where roaming is not possible,” commented Nadia Bulbulia, head of Cell C's regulatory division.

However, the Department of Justice said the overall aim of the legislation, namely to fight crime, outweighs the objections. The department's chief director for legislation, Lawrence Bassett, told the NCOP's security and constitutional affairs standing committee that the issues had been aired before. Notwithstanding those comments, the National Assembly had resolved to pass the legislation, he noted.

According to the Parliamentary Monitoring Group's record of the proceedings, he added that if there were any loopholes, such as excluding foreign visitors from registration, it would render the legislation meaningless. “If there is a single loophole, we can just as well not have this legislation. There is no room for any gaps.”

State law advisor Ina Botha told the committee in turn that the RICA amendment would require South Africans to register cellphone and personal details on pain of imprisonment. There was no cogent reason why the same should not apply to visitors to the country, she said. “We want enough information timeously to prevent, detect and solve crime. We also want the information to be legitimate.”

Industry disagrees

Vodacom managing executive for regulatory affairs Pakamile Pongwana disagreed. He said apart from the negative impact the requirement would have on business, the provision was “physically and technically unsound” as it would require every visitor to register with all three operators.

In addition, no other country in the world requires registration of foreign cellphones.

MTN senior legal and regulatory advisor Louina Nunan said existing delays at airports were already causing visitors frustration and resentment. “If we were to delay them at the airport for another 15 or 30 minutes [for purposes of registering with local providers], how would that affect tourism and international business travellers?”

Bulbulia added that in implementation, laws had to be reasonable, practical and possible. She said the requirement puts SA in “uncharted territory”.

She told the committee Cell C alone had 394 agreements with other networks to allow roaming and that it was not technically possible to block or allow individual foreign numbers. A provision to force registration of individual roaming numbers would effectively mean there could be no roaming at all.

Pongwana said the revised Section 40(1) provided that the operators could not activate a SIM card, or activate a cellphone, unless details were registered.

However, roaming was a wholesale, not retail activity. “We don't sign roaming agreements with individual people. Roaming agreements are signed with other network operators and these agreements run into the hundreds for each operator.”

For visitors, this happened overseas and the facility automatically kicked in when they switched on their mobile phones on arrival.

Present global wholesale roaming agreements, as well as the nature of mobile phone technology, make it impossible in practice to grant one individual access to local networks, but block another. Either everyone can roam or no one. Since allowing unregistered visitors to roam on South African networks will attract criminal penalties, the operators would have to end international roaming.

Impractical implementation

Pongwana doubts that closing every loophole was ever possible. “We are not saying we will not implement the law,” he said. “I understand what the Department of Justice is trying to do. [But] closing every loophole must be practical, implimentable and must make good sense.”

Committee chairman Kgoshi Lameck Mokoena said the comments “make sense”. African National Congress committee member Letlhogile Moseki added the country was already under fire for the difficulties and costs of doing business and the amount of red tape.

Democratic Alliance NCOP member Wilhelm le Roux added: “The whole world has a problem with crime and terrorism, some countries even more so than us. How is it then that just we insist on this roaming registration? Is it then not true that the providers are saying that it is just not practical to do?”

Justice officials were not convinced, and said the mobile providers had failed to explain why visitors should be exempt from a requirement that applied to all residents.

See also PMG record

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