President Jacob Zuma has signed into law the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) Amendment Bill and the Electronic Communications Amendment Bill.
The main purpose of this was to amend the Electronic Communications Act, 2005 (Act No.36 of 2005) to more closely align it with broad-based black economic empowerment initiatives and to refine licencing issues.
It also gives power to the Minister of Communications to issue policy directions to the Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (USAASA).
The government hopes that these changes will improve the governance and structure of the USAASA Board, including the fiduciary duties of the Board.
The update to the Icasa Bill will provide for more clarity on the powers and duties of Icasa, its councillors and committees, improve the efficiency of Icasa, and conform the Icasa Act more closely to the requirements of the Public Finance Management Act.
A closer look at the changes that have been made to the Acts shows a few deeper insights. One of the changes that is likely to be welcomed is the provision to implement penalties for failure to abide by pro-competitive licence conditions. There is also an obligation to provide separate accounting for any services specified by communications regulator Icasa; and to maintain structural separation for the provision of any services specified and wholesale and retail price regulation for specific services.
On the other hand, a less popular amendment may be the granting of even more power to Icasa. When the new Act comes into effect, Icasa will be responsible for electronic transactions under its new mandate. This means they can study and make recommendations to the minister around the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act, which includes all e-commerce.
Some analysts believe that Icasa is already overburdened and unable to fulfil its current mandate. The recent discussion over mobile termination rates in particular has not shown Icasa in a strong light, with questions arising around their regulation-making process. They have also been under fire for the delay in policy around the licensing of 4G/LTE spectrum when other countries have long rolled out their 4G services.
To put Icasa in charge of e-commerce thus seems to be giving even more power to an already overloaded and ineffectual organisation. E-commerce in South Africa was expected to account for R4.2 billion last year. With this rapid growth of e-commerce, Icasa will therefore have to pull their socks up to show that they can handle the responsibility.