There’s movement in the telecoms sector, but what it means is anyone’s guess

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Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more Monty Pythonesque in the South African telecoms sector, the communications minister is now suing the regulator for publishing its intention to auction off spectrum for superfast cellular broadband.

Which minister of communications exactly, you might ask? Well, it’s not the usual storm of controversy that follows foot-in-mouth pronouncements of Communications Minister Faith Muthambi – although she is enrolled in another scandal over a TV licence, which we will get to shortly.

This time the minister suing effectively his own regulator – the Independent Communication Authority of South Africa (Icasa) –  is Telecommunications and Postal Services Minister Siyabonga Cwele. After years of delays and uncertainty Icasa last month gave notice that it would auction much-needed spectrum used for the long-term evolution (LTE) of cellular broadband. The usually passive Icasa was round applauded by the telecoms industry for being decisive in the face of a seeming indifference from government over this vital sector of the economy.

You could be forgiven for not knowing which minister was involved in this latest fracas, given how fractured and chaotic the communications ministry is – and that was before Presidunce Jacob Zuma split this dysfunctional department in two and appointed two egoistical and incompetent ministers to head up what are now effectively two warring factions.

It’s impressive that Cwele has managed to wrestle the headlines away from Muthambi, who often appears in the news to defend the controversial chief operating office of the SABC Hlaudi Motsoeneng. She’s equally high-profile for failing to implement the digital terrestrial television (DTT) rollout, for which the globally agreed-to cut-off date was LAST June. Muthambi’s meddling in this, going counter to her own party’s policy, has caused endless delays and innumerable court challenges. But its hard to understand her logic, especially given her regular public defence of Motsoeneng, the Homer Simpson of SA broadcasting.

Muthambi’s most recent intervention with Icasa was revealed last month after accusations she tried to unduly influence Icasa councillor Nomvuyiso Batyi with an offer of being the body’s chair If she gave a licence for another Gupta-owned television station.

Which brings us back to the seemingly inexplicable legal challenge by Cwele. The spectrum to be auctioned is crucial for this next generation of broadband – which makes it cheaper and more effective for cellular networks to delivering the wireless internet access we all depend on.

The current model proposed by Icasa is to auction each of the four blocks of frequencies for R3bn each. It’s being hotly contested by a range of smaller operators who quite rightly point out that a R3bn price tag keeps the current big players in the running, while excluding new entrants and smaller operations. There’s a lot of logic to this, which seems to clash with the counter argument that goes: to effectively make use of this new spectrum you need the kind of financial muscle that the big networks alone seem to possess. New players would be required to saddle themselves with huge debt – or take on investors – to make a new going concern.

It’s my job as a columnist for this fine business magazine [Financial Mail, that is. See below – Ed] to explain what is going on in this crucial economic driver of a sector. But I am forced to admit defeat. As an investigative reporter I was taught to “follow the money” – a sure-fire way of calculating whose interests are best being served by inexplicable decisions involving vast amounts of lucre and government tenders.

But the mess of vested interests and hidden agendas behind the goings-on of the split telecoms ministries and their empire-building ministers locked in a power struggle with the other is too much like the script of a Monty Python skit to explain.

Meanwhile the Ministry of Funny Walks continues battling the Ministry of Hlaudi-protection and DTT interference. If it wasn’t so tragic, it might even be funny.

This column first appeared in Financial Mail

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Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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