Convergence Bill: Sentech briefing

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Meeting report

LABOUR AND PUBLIC ENTERPRISES SELECT COMMITTEE

LABOUR AND PUBLIC ENTERPRISES SELECT COMMITTEE
31 August 2005
CONVERGENCE BILL: SENTECH BRIEFING

Chairperson:
Ms M Themba (ANC, Mpumulanga)

Documents handed out:
Sentech presentation on Convergence Bill

SUMMARY
Sentech gave the Committee an overview of convergence, which was the merging of telecommunications, broadcasting, computers and data networks so that voice and data could be transmitted over the same network. Convergence would have the advantage of digitising communication networks, thereby lowering service costs. Sentech had a common carrier status that required it to provide broadcasting services to all communities, and it hoped that the Convergence Bill would remove the restrictions in its licences so that it could fulfil its common carriers status through digital broadcasting.

Members were concerned about the prohibition against providing voice in Sentech’s Multimedia Services Licence, and the reasons for the Minister’s failure to lift this restriction. Members were also concerned about how multimedia services could be provided in an affordable way to rural communities after convergence. The relationship of Sentech to community radio stations was also discussed.

MINUTES

Sentech briefing
Mr Matime Nchabeleng (Sentech: Government Relations) briefed the Committee on the implications of the Convergence Bill for communications services in general, and for Sentech in particular. Convergence was the collapsing of telecommunications, broadcasting, computers and data networks so that voice and data could be transmitted over the same network.

One of the advantages of convergence was the digitisation of communication networks. This would solve the problem of analogue systems that used up the frequency spectrum. Digital networks would allow suppliers to offer multi-media services (voice, internet and broadcasting) on a single platform where users could request particular content from suppliers. As up to eight broadcasters could use the same bandwidth on digital networks, convergence would introduce more competition among suppliers and lower service costs.

Sentech’s common carrier status meant that if broadcasting services were required by a particular community, Sentech had a legal obligation to provide these. Sentech hoped that the Convergence Bill would remove all the inhibitors in its licences so that it could fulfil its common carrier status through digital broadcasting. These inhibitors included: the prohibition on carriage of switched voice (Multimedia Services Licence); and the restriction on the provision of international services directly to end users (Carrier of Carriers Licence).

Discussion
The Chairperson clarified that Sentech was providing an explanation on the Convergence Bill and was not lobbying the Committee. Mr D Mkono (ANC, Eastern Cape) requested that Sentech provide definitions of the technical terms used in the presentation. He asked what implications the lowering of broadcasting prices would have for employment. Mr Nchabeleng replied that the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) was currently considering the lowering of broadcasting prices, as it was responsible for this matter.

Ms N Ntwanambi (ANC, Western Cape) asked for further explanation on Sentech’s licence restrictions on providing voice. Mr Nchabeleng answered that Sentech’s Multimedia Services Licence restricted it from providing voice to digital devices that were connected to networks and were voice-enabled. The Carrier of Carriers Licence restricted Sentech from providing a service directly to end users, as international calls had to be passed on to other operators. Section 32 of the Sentech Act stipulated that Sentech could provide voice on a date set by the Minister. However, when the Telecommunications Act was amended in 2001, the Minister provided for other entities, but did not lift the restrictions on Sentech.

Mr F Creese (Sentech: Senior Transmitter Manager) added that, although Sentech’s wireless, internet protocol (IP) network was enabled, Sentech was restricted from providing Voice Over IP. Sentech’s Carrier of Carriers Licence did not allow it to switch calls to international carriers like British Telecom.

The Chairperson enquired how convergence would affect communication services in rural areas. Mr Nchabeleng responded that Sentech would retain its common carrier status and so would be obliged to provide broadcasting services to rural areas that required them. Mr Creese added that convergence would bring together separate electronic infrastructures and so allow Sentech to provide a single, integrated service in rural community centres. In this way, more services could be provided more cost-effectively in rural areas.

Mr K Sinclaire (NNP, Northern Cape) enquired why the Minister had not previously removed the inhibitors on Sentech’s licences. He also asked how the Convergence Bill would help to solve the problem of accessibility to communication services in rural areas and how it would provide a product affordable to rural communities. Which body would regulate the content of multimedia items after convergence?

Mr Nchabeleng replied that Sentech did not know why the Minister did not give it a licence to provide voice. When Mr Sinclaire prompted him to consider whether the government was seeking to protect Telkom’s monopoly, Mr Nchabeleng commented that only the Department would be in a position to answer that question. Ms D Qocha (Sentech: Policy and Licensing) added that one of the aims of the Convergence Bill was to do away with monopolies so that Sentech, for example, could provide telecommunications services. Mr Nchabeleng continued that ICASA would continue to regulate prices of communications services after convergence, and the Film and Publications Board would regulate the content of films that were broadcast. Mr Creese added that digital networks empowered users to regulate content on their own terminals.

The Chairperson asked whether Sentech planned to educate rural communities on how to access multimedia services. Ms Qocha replied that roadshows would be used to introduce communities to new multimedia products.

Mr Sinclaire noted that Sentech was the only public entity providing broadcasting signals to the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and asked whether any licencee could provide broadcasting services. Mr Creese answered that Sentech gave technical advice to community broadcasters that applied to broadcast from Sentech’s facilities. Under the conditions of its licence, Sentech was obliged to provide this information free of charge.

Mr Sinclaire observed that community radio stations were often the only means of communication in rural areas, and asked how these stations could improve their coverage. Mr Creese responded that ICASA decided the frequency, power and coverage of community radio stations on application for a licence; Sentech provided the service according to the terms of the licence. Sentech advised community broadcasters on the technical aspects of their applications to ICASA, including how best to provide coverage.

The meeting was adjourned.

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