Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

DURING a tense hearing on Wednesday, Saicom Voice Services’ opposition to the R1.5bn sale of cellphone service provider Altech Autopage’s subscriber base to MTN, Vodacom and Cell C was rejected by the Competition Tribunal.

In the next few weeks, the tribunal will make a decision on the sale, which was originally approved by the Competition Commission without conditions, but was referred back to it after Saicom raised concerns about the deal.

Saicom, an Autopage client and a business telecommunications services provider, asked on Wednesday for a stay of proceedings at a hearing held in Pretoria, but the tribunal went ahead and has now concluded the matter.

Saicom was allowed to participate in the hearing, albeit in a restricted manner, and the company indicated that it wanted to know why this was the case. This may lead to it lodging an appeal.

Altech Autopage is exiting the cellphone market.

The hearing at the tribunal was centred on whether or not enough evidence was provided to test if the planned exit would go ahead regardless of the sale.

Rafik Bhana, for Saicom, argued that the company needed more financial information to test the veracity of this, and asked that the hearings not proceed until this had been done.

But Arnold Subel SC, for Autopage, said such sensitive financial information should be made available to the tribunal only under confidentiality.

Tribunal chairman Andrei Wessels denied Saicom’s request that the hearing be halted and instead asked the company to make its submissions.

Saicom raised numerous concerns to the tribunal including that the commission had supposedly not spoken to clusters of customers who might be affected by the deal, and that the sale would create an enabling environment for a monopoly for the buying parties.

This prompted a supplementary report by the commission to the tribunal.

Autopage was put on sale by Allied Electronics Corporation Limited, its parent company, because of economic pressures.

Autopage resells providers’ voice and data packages, often at a discount, with a third party taking on the credit risk for subscribers.

Autopage’s operating model has, however, come under pressure because of regulatory changes and increased competition among the main network operators.