Cellphone operator MTN had not yet been able to meet its obligations to give away 2,5-million SIM cards and 125000 handsets to poor people, or to roll out internet access to 8000 schools, the company said last week.

The social upliftment obligations were imposed as licence conditions when the cellular networks were awarded the 1800MHz spectrum and the high-speed third generation (3G) spectrum to boost their coverage.

MTN has taken no action yet as it tabled its proposals for distributing the equipment only late last year, and is waiting for approval of its plans by the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa).

Vodacom was also waiting for Icasa to approve its social obligation plans, said spokeswoman Dot Field. She could not say when Vodacom had submitted its roll-out plans to Icasa but said the company was working with government to plan the internet access service for schools. The agreement to give away the SIM cards and handsets to poor communities was thrashed out in August 2003, to give poor communities access to telecommunications. In return, the operators paid just R5m for their 1800MHz licences, far lower than the R700m that was proposed initially by government.

The agreement to provide internet access to 8000 schools and 140 institutes for disabled people came in June 2004 when 3G licences were granted. Yet MTN put all its proposals together in one document that it presented to Icasa only last October.

"We have prepared the roll-out of our 1800 and 3G obligations, and those plans have been submitted to Icasa for approval," said MTN's GM of internal business development Nkateko Nyoka. "Icasa hasn't yet approved our roll-out."

An industry commentator said it seemed unfair that the operators were granted the licences at very favourable prices when the "obligations" would also benefit the operators by putting more users on to their networks.

Business Day