MTN's head office in Johannesburg. Picture: EPA/KIM LUDBROOK
MTN's head office in Johannesburg. Picture: EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

THE white paper on the government’s proposed information and communications technology (ICT) policy — including an approach to over-the-top (OTT) services — would be submitted to the Cabinet in March, Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services director Tsholofelo Mooketsi said in Parliament Tuesday.

The key policy issue related to OTT services she said was whether or not to regulate them and whether or not to put in place a system of net neutrality.

Ms Mooketsi’s comments were made during an engagement on OTT services organised by Parliament’s portfolio committee on telecommunications and postal services. Cellphone operators have complained that OTT services such as Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and streaming video services make use of their infrastructure without contributing to their cost, and erode their revenues.

Regulators around the world are also grappling with the problem of how to regulate OTT services without suffocating innovation and inhibiting economic growth and development.

The department’s chief director of telecommunications and IT policy, Alf Witz, told the committee that submissions that were being taken into account in the drafting of the white paper included whether and how to regulate OTT services, the need for net neutrality, transparency of network management, free access and nondiscrimination towards internet traffic, among others.

Independent Communications Authority of SA CEO Pakamile Pongwana emphasised the need to allow innovation to happen without regulation and deal only with the bottlenecks as they arose. The bottleneck today to the growth of networks and OTTs was the nonavailability of spectrum.

Committee chairwoman Mmamoloko Kubayi said SA needed to have a predictable policy environment that was conducive to investment.

Research ICT Africa executive director Alison Gillwald stressed that old-fashioned approaches towards competition regulation could not be used to address OTT services, which were opening up internet access to the poor. They were becoming very important means to communicate and critical for economic growth and development. Regulation had to be adaptive and flexible and not be allowed to suppress innovation.

She noted that OTT services were, in fact, not free to consumers who paid for the underlying data services provided by the mobile phone operators. The operators benefited from the growth in data usage, which was driven by the use of OTT services.

Ms Gillwald observed that earnings of Vodacom and MTN were still impressive, despite the expansion of OTT services.