Durban – A battle of giants is looming as South Africa’s cellphone heavyweights take on global players like Google, Facebook and Microsoft as they try to get the government to regulate free communication.

Vodacom and MTN want services like WhatsApp, Google Hangout and Skype to be regulated because they are eating into the companies’ bottom lines. They feel they are entitled to revenue for carrying the data services on their bandwidth infrastructure.

Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Telecommunications and Postal Services is holding a public meeting on January 26.

The committee is yet to secure a venue for the hearings, which will be open to the public.

On Friday, an online women’s magazine, all4women.co.za, launched an online petition, #savewhatsapp, against this regulation arguing it would “seriously impact on the freedom of speech and communication”.

This petition is in reaction to calls by Vodacom and MTN for the regulation of Over-The-Top (OTT) internet services.

These are services that allow users to make calls and send text messages over data networks, often at lower costs than traditional telephone calls or SMS.

Graham de Vries, MTN SA’s chief corporate services executive, said: “MTN believes that telecommunication operators and Over the Top (OTT) operators can co-exist in an agreed and mutually beneficial relationship.

“MTN is committed to establishing an amicable relationship with OTTs.”

Review

He said the mobile network would make a representation at the committee’s meeting.

Maya Makanjee, Vodacom’s chief officer of corporate affairs, said: “Vodacom supports the review of the environment similar to the views expressed by the European Commission, articulated in the Digital Single Market strategy, that rules must be simpler, future proof and must also ensure a level playing field between traditional telecoms companies and new players where they compete in the same market.

“Vodacom believes that a solution that allows all the players to work together in the interest of the broader public can be reached through these discussions.”

All4women wants 50 000 signatures when its petition is handed over to the portfolio committee’s chairwoman, Mmamoloko Tryphosa Kubayi, before the public hearing.

Sasha Wyatt-Minter, editor of All4women, said yesterday that South Africa needed access to affordable communication.

“It’s about increasing opportunities. People do business via WhatsApp and Skype, etc. It’s not just a social communication platform, it contributes towards our economic growth. Businesses are built on communication.

“Communities are supported by communication – think about all the community WhatsApp groups that exist, like our local neighbourhood watch etc… Our readers feel very strongly about this too – and we knew that we would have their support,” she explained. The petition said the cellphone providers were claiming that they were losing profits as systems that help South Africans stay in touch with friends and family, build and manage businesses and communicate internationally.

A report by World Wide Worx found that the popularity of OTT services like WhatsApp had rocketed in South Africa, with more than 10 million users in the country.

The women’s publication criticised the cellphone providers for “overcharging” – saying the country had “among the highest” cellphone and SMS rates in the world.

 

Their letter, addressed to Kubayi and Minister of Communications, Faith Muthambi, urged them to reject “Vodacom and MTN’s application for monopolistic protection”.

They argued that regulating these services would:

* increase the costs to millions of South Africans who can least afford it;

* interfere with the communication between friends and families; and

* interfere with channels of local and international business communication.

“It should be noted that sellers of data – such as the companies involved – will continue to profit from an ever-increasing sale of data needed to enable WhatsApp, Skype etc. Please reject the whole idea and send Vodacom and MTN packing without delay,” the letter read.

By Monday morning, the petition had more than 10 000 signatures.

“We urge South Africans to sign and share the petition – #Feesmustfall showed that South Africans want to be heard – and so does the petition,” said Wyatt-Minter.

The online petition has received great support from social media users.

A user said: “We pay for data to use these services, the cell companies cannot dictate how we use the data that we have already paid for.”

Many reacted angrily, referring to mobile networks as “greedy”.

‘Regulation will affect poor the most’

Mmamoloko Tryphosa Kubayi, the chair of Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Telecommunications and Postal Services, said today the poor and vulnerable would be most affected if data services on mobile networks were regulated.

The public meeting scheduled for later this month was to ascertain whether this regulation was really necessary, she said.

“And, if so, in what areas it is necessary,” Kubayi added.

Of all4women.co.za’s online petition, #savewhatsapp, against this regulation, Kubayi said it was the online magazine’s right but that she did not think it was the most productive route to take.

“They should try to be part of the process,” she said, adding that the committee had established an open platform for discussion.

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