The 26th of January has been set aside by the Portfolio Committee on Telecommunications and Postal Services for discussion around the possible regulation of over-the-top (OTT) services such as WhatsApp, Skype, and Viber among others.
The hearings come as a result of network operators Vodacom and MTN calling for OTT services to be regulated – much like how telecommunication service providers are regulated at the moment. The problem with OTT services is that there is no benefit to network operators other than sales of data.
Unlike network operators, OTT services simply use data to make voice calls and send messages; they do not pay to operate in the country, they don’t have to comply with governmental regulations regarding telecommunications and they don’t contribute towards any of the infrastructure that they use.
“A lot of your data growth is driven by the same people who are trying to cannibalise you,” said Vodacom Group Chief Executive Officer Shameel Joosub in a report on Fin24 in November.
For the sake of clarity the committee will discuss how exactly to tackle the issue of OTT services, particularly what policy interventions need to be put in place, and how OTT services impact competition. Whether there is a need for an OTT service to be classified as a telecommunications service and be subject to licensing and regulatory obligations that accompany the classification will also be discussed.
That’s the important bit here, because at the moment OTT services are a bit of a grey area; countries such as India as well as the European Union have both investigated the need to regulate OTT services in the past, but neither country has resolved anything.
We look forward to seeing the outcome of these discussions; while they may seem a little worrying, at least Skype, Viber, WhatsApp and Facetime are still available here, unlike in Morocco where all these services were blocked by network operators earlier this year.