Tuesday, August 11, 2009

South Africa: The telecoms sector finally has its "Charter" on quality of service

[business day] After 30 months of work and three rounds of consultations, some toned- down regulations demanding certain standards of customer service from SA's telecommunications sector have finally been issued.

Under one new rule, operators can be fined up to R500,000 if more than 3% of calls are dropped or cannot be connected. That is unlikely to happen, as the operators say their call failure rate is only 2%.

The rules are outlined in the End- User and Subscriber Service Charter issued by the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) last week. The operators must ensure their networks are available for 95% of the time, and 90% of reported faults must be resolved within three days.

Operators must also submit reports every six months to show how well they are meeting those standards. Councillor Brenda Ntombela said Icasa had budgeted R6m this year to monitor the transmission quality of the networks.

Icasa's effort to beef up consumer protection began in January 2007 when it formed a committee to set minimum standards for customer service. Regulations were drafted in July 2007 and a workshop was held to get feedback from the industry.

Icasa published its regulations in February last year, but quickly withdrew them to allow another round of comments. Concerns had been raised that the regulations were "extremely onerous and would be difficult, if not impossible, to implement", it said.

After amended regulations were published in October last year, Icasa received more complaints, and gave the operators and the public another chance to comment when it published the regulations again in January.

On Friday, it announced that the rules were now final. Icasa has also issued draft regulations on the allocation of scarce wireless spectrum that the operators need to carry voice and data communications.

Its most important decision concerns the spectrum needed for WiMax, a technology that can cover large areas and carry high volumes of traffic relatively cheaply. Initially, Icasa insisted that any operator applying for spectrum must be at least 51% black-owned. That sparked an industry outcry, with players saying the companies black enough to meet that profile lacked the skills or the cash to build a network.

Now Icasa has capitulated, and whittled down the black ownership demand to 30%. That still eliminates many experienced players, but does allow more companies to apply or to bid with a black partner.

Icasa has also taken the industry's advice by offering the spectrum in larger chunks so the winners will have enough to operate effectively.

That will limit WiMax to just four licences. MTN, Vodacom, Altech, Internet Solutions and MWeb have all expressed interest in a licence.

One problem is that state-owned Sentech is sitting on spectrum it does not use. Icasa's new rules say that if licensed spectrum remains unused, a principle of use it or lose it will apply. It was not clear how feasible it would be to put that rule into practice.

Telecoms Charter Becomes a Reality At Last

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