Minister, Icasa in Court Over self-provisioning Licence for JSE-listed Altech

Telecoms

Communications Minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri is taking the industry regulator to court to prevent it issuing a telecoms licence to JSE-listed Altech. A court action pitting a minister against an industry regulator is thought to be unprecedented, and comes after a high court judge ruled that the minister had overstepped her powers and was running a flawed licensing process.

The judge ruled that Altech and about 300 other voice and data carriers were automatically entitled to a licence giving them the right to build their own networks. Matsepe-Casaburri has applied for leave to appeal against the verdict, claiming it would throw her policy of managed liberalisation into chaos, but her appeal will be considered only on October 30.

On Friday the minister took further action by applying for an urgent interdict to prevent the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) giving Altech an electronic communications network services (ECNS) licence.

Icasa has played down the action, saying the minister is simply asking for clarity on whether the licensing process has been put in abeyance pending her intended appeal. "The minister is trying to get the court to clarify whether her appeal suspends the judgment that was issued. If the court says the appeal suspends the judgment it means we are not to do anything," an Icasa spokesman said. In a sense it was academic, as Icasa had already halted the licence conversions, he said.

"If the judge says the appeal doesn't suspend the judgment it's something we would look at, but I can't say whether we would go ahead with the process." However, if the judge declares that the appeal does not suspend the ruling, Altech can press Icasa to issue a licence so it can begin to construct a network.

The verdict that value added network services (Vans) licence holders were entitled to ECNS licences was a breakthrough for liberalising the industry, as companies would no longer have to lease their bandwidth from Telkom, Neotel or the cellular operators.

Icasa prepared to issue the licences, but backtracked when the minister began her appeal. Altech then sent a letter of demand, saying Icasa would be in contempt of court if it refused to issue a licence that a court said it is entitled to have.

In applying for an interdict, the minister said if every Vans operator gained an ECNS licence, it would devalue the licences of Telkom, the cellular networks and the R100m licence that Neotel bought in order to be the second national operator.

Business Day