#SaveWhatsapp South Africans are not Amused at Plans to Regulate OTTs

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In June 2015, Airtel Africa CEO Christian De Faria argued that over-the-top content providers such as Facebook, Telegram, Google and Whatsapp should be regulated and forced to pay a fee for utilization of infrastructure put in place by mobile companies. The argument stemmed from the realization that OTT services were increasingly biting into the revenues of Telcos. The biggest casualty has been SMS revenue as users continually adopt instant messaging as their preferred mode of communication. OTT services such as Viber, BBM and Whatsapp allow users to VOIP calls further reducing voice revenues for Telcos.

A similar argument was posted in South Africa by the two largest carriers MTN and Vodacom. Subsequently, the South African parliament through the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Telecommunications called for hearings to be held on 26th January 2016. Key among the issues to be discussed in the hearings include the definition of OTT services in law i.e. as a telecoms service provider (voice/data) or a telecoms infrastructure company.  This will then determine the licensing and regulatory obligations of these companies (if they will be any) as well as policy and regulatory interventions. Further, the hearings will discuss the impact of OTTs on the competition.

The South African public is not amused by these hearings or their proposals and have thus launched an online petition calling upon the Parliamentary committee to reject these proposals. The petition #SaveWhatsapp has also taken over social media platforms in South Africa mostly calling upon users to sign. The petition created by All4Women Magazine has attracted nearly 12,000 supporters over 4 days with a set goal of 15,000.

Just last week, a similar debate took over social media in Kenya after the Kenya Film and Classification board sought to regulate Netflix content in Kenya. CS ICT, Joe Mucheru and Communications Authority of Kenya Director General Francis Wangusi have since clarified that Kenya has no capacity to regulate the internet meaning OTTs in Kenya are free to run wild. It will be interesting to see the outcome of these hearings but my bet is that SA wont go the Morocco way, where all VOIP services over 3G and 4G are completely blocked.

 

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