WhatsApp and some other Over the Top (OTT) internet services are likely to face restrictions on its usage in South Africa pending on the outcome of planned Parliament hearings this month.
According to report reaching us, OTT services that allow users to make messages and calls over data networks – often at comparatively lower costs than traditional telephone calls or SMS – like WhatsApp have skyrocketed in usage in South Africa giving over 10 million users in the country.
As a result of this high increase, South Africa’s two biggest mobile networks Vodacom and MTN had last year, called for regulation of OTT services in South Africa.
The Portfolio Committee on Telecommunications and Postal Services had confirmed that the possible regulation of OTT services in South Africa has been scheduled for hearing on January 26.
A notice of the planned hearings had also been sent to relevant stakeholders stating that it would discuss how OTTs would be governed; possible regulatory interventions on the guidelines to regulate OTTs” and the “impact of OTTs on competition”.
Furthermore, topics such as whether “there would be need for the OTTs to be defined as telecom services (voice or data) or telecom infrastructure, and thus whether they should be subject to licensing and regulatory obligations (such as legal intercept and emergency call access) or not.
According to Hajiera Salie, who is the secretary of the committee, though it is yet unclear who will be presenting at the hearing, the committee had tried to secure a venue for the hearings which are planned to be open to the public.
Meanwhile, a communications regulatory expert at Ellipsis Regulatory Solutions Dominic Cull, had attested that he received a notice of the hearing. Cull also added that mobile networks seem to “still have some lobbying power in terms of getting these matters before bodies like Parliament”.
“WhatsApp is obviously in the forefront. You know why the mobiles (mobile networks) are upset: It’s a revenue question. But we’re also talking about TeamViewer, Google Hangouts, Viber etc,” Cull said.
Cull added that one challenge about regulating OTT is that “just about everything provided over the network could be regarded as an OTT. Once you can’t divide them up, it obviously becomes ludicrous to try and regulate them,” he said.
According to him, there are two fascinating points to watch regarding the OTT regulation hearings later this month.
“The parties which are in the firing line here – in terms of the regulation – are not the usual suspects such as ISPs (internet service providers) and smaller players looking to compete. We’re talking about Facebook, Google, Microsoft and the like.
So, we’re talking about substantial multinationals that have an interest here.
And the second thing is that this is one of the rare telecommunications issues which people get. So, they understand WhatsApp. They know what it means to the spend on communication,”