Picture: BLOOMBERG
Picture: BLOOMBERG

OVER-the-top internet services, such as WhatsApp, could be regulated in SA depending on the outcome of planned Parliament hearings this month.

Over-the-top services — which include Skype and Google Hangouts, among others — allow users to send messages and make calls over data networks, often at comparatively lower costs than traditional telephone calls or SMS.

Services such as WhatsApp have rocketed in usage in SA, with more than 10-million users in the country, according to a recent report by World Wide Worx and Fuseware.

Amid this growth, SA’s two biggest mobile networks — Vodacom and MTN — last year called for regulation of over-the-top service services in SA.

Subsequently, the Portfolio Committee on Telecommunications and Postal Services has confirmed to Fin24 that it has scheduled hearings into the possible regulation of over-the-top services in SA on January 26.

A notice of the planned hearings, which was sent to relevant stakeholders, says the hearings are set to discuss "necessary policy interventions on how to govern over-the-tops, regulatory interventions on the guidelines to regulate over-the-top" and the "impact of over-the-tops on competition".

Another topic to be discussed at the hearings is whether "there (is) a need for the over-the-top services to be defined as telecom services (voice or data) or telecom infrastructure, and thus whether they should be subject to licensing and regulatory obligations (such as legal intercept and emergency call access) or not?"

The committee is trying to secure a venue for the hearings, which are planned to be open to the public, the secretary of the committee, Hajiera Salie, said. More details about the hearings will be provided later this month, Ms Salie added.

It’s unclear who will be presenting at the hearings at this stage.

Dominic Cull, a communications regulatory expert at Ellipsis Regulatory Solutions, said he had received a notice of the hearings.

Mr Cull said it looked as if mobile networks "still have some lobbying power in terms of getting these matters before bodies like Parliament".

"WhatsApp is obviously in the forefront. You know why the mobiles (mobile networks) are upset: It’s a revenue question. But we’re also talking about TeamViewer, Google Hangouts, Viber etc," Mr Cull said.

Mr Cull said a challenge about regulating over-the-top services is that "just about everything provided over the network could be regarded as an over-the-top service".

"Once you can’t divide them up, it obviously becomes ludicrous to try regulate them," Mr Cull added. He said there were two "fascinating" points to watch regarding the over-the-top services regulation hearings later this month.

"The parties in the firing line here — in terms of the regulation — are not the usual suspects such as ISPs (internet service providers) and smaller players looking to compete. We’re talking about Facebook, Google, Microsoft and the like," Mr Cull said.

"So, we’re talking about substantial multinationals that have an interest here.

"And the second thing is that this is one of the rare telecommunications issues that people get. So, they understand WhatsApp. They know what it means to the spend on communication," Mr Cull said.

Fin24