Ugandan Minister Knocks South Africa’s Telecoms Policy and high SAT3 prices

Telecoms

Uganda's technology minister has chided SA's government for meddling too much in the telecommunications sector, saying a lighter touch would grow the industry, cut the cost of services and help local companies to flourish.

A hands-off approach would avoid the bureaucratic delays and corruption that occured when governments got involved, said Alintuma Nsambu, Uganda's minister for information and communications technologies. "If you are going to make something successful, you have to keep governments away, because the moment you involve government you increase bureaucracy and there is often corruption."

Nsambu was sharing a stage with SA's science and technology minister, Mosibudi Mangena, at the Satcom Africa conference in Johannesburg last week when he suggested that SA should rethink its telecoms regulations. Then he apologised for making his criticisms in public instead of discussing them in private. "I wish you had written to me privately," Mangena replied.

Nsambu said governments should back off from playing an active role as the telecoms sector "must be run by highly skilled technicians, not by politicians". The government's role should be to support private companies by removing any bottlenecks, such as ensuring that officials did not need bribing to get things done or to allow equipment to clear customs.

"Liberalising the telecoms sector means discouraging monopolies or duopolies," he said in a dig at South Africa, where Neotel was belatedly granted the sole licence that opened up competition to Telkom.

Then he took another jab, saying the private sector should be left to build and operate undersea telecommunications cables. SA's government is already championing its involve-ment in at least two cable projects, and is jeopardising plans to increase Africa's bandwidth by insisting that private cables may land in SA only if they are majority African-owned.

Nsambu attacked the high cost of internet access in SA, even though the country is not reliant on notoriously expensive satellite connections. "Ironically in SA the cost of internet usage isn't cheap," he said. Much of SA's international traffic is carried on the undersea Sat-3 cable, and Telkom has kept Sat-3 bandwidth prices artificially high.

Full liberalisation of the telecoms sector was extremely important for any nation's economy, he said, as it provided consumers with lower prices, better customer service and faster internet access. Uganda had one of the most liberal telecoms policies in the world. Even first world countries could learn from it, Nsambu told the conference.

In contrast, SA's policies were hindering the sector and the success of local operators.

When MTN first bid to enter Uganda, his government had been suspicious of letting it operate there as it appeared to be struggling to win licences at home. A great deal of due diligence was carried out on MTN by the authorities, he said.

"It took them a long time to convince us that in SA the regulations are that bad," Nsambu said. "Your government should provide such companies with a certificate to say the companies are good but they don't meet our requirements because we have our own regulations," he told Mangena.

Mangena said the reproaches should be directed at SA's communications and trade and industry departments, not his science and technology department. "Nevertheless it's one government and if you have issues I'm quite prepared to pass them on to the relevant ministers."

Mangena denied that progress in SA was shackled by the government's regulating undersea cables or by creating Infraco as a state-owned supplier of broadband infrastructure. Some areas could be liberalised further, but the regulatory environment laid the ground rules rather than inhibited progress, he said.

Infraco was established because no other company could provide sufficient bandwidth fast enough to support the Southern African Large Telescope and to let SA bid to host the $1.5bn Square Kilometre Array radio telescope. "If there were private companies that came and said we can provide this bandwidth we wouldn't have Infraco," Mangena said.

Business Day