Make no mistake: the internet has become a basic human resource. South African legislation agrees and since the Electronic Communications Act (ECA) was signed into law in 2005, telecoms companies can provide internet to consumers in both public and private spaces.
At Link Africa, we have installed fibre in South Africa’s underground network of sewers and storm drains, successfully engaging local government on the issue and using the public the domain for the greater good of internet penetration in the country. But the private domain is also within our coverage, and we’re proud to be participating in an industry where competition is encouraged and where the end consumer ultimately has healthy choices to make.
In this light, we’re troubled by an emerging new trend in the housing market that inhibits that choice. News has emerged of landlords concluding “exclusive” deals with ISPs. These deals are then offered to their tenants, and with the element of choice removed, the landlord is positioning himself as the middleman and hike up the price. He protects himself through a convoluted legal document that binds his client to the deal. The tenant, oblivious to the scheme at play, very often signs on the dotted line and becomes the victim of what we’re calling “revenue piracy.”
This practice is the very definition of anti-competitive. In fact, it’s illegal and flies in the face of the Competitions Act, the ECA and quite possibly also the Telecoms Regulations. While the Electronics Communication Act has helped loosen bureaucracy it has also emboldened landlords and property developers to become Mafia-esque extortionists.
Worst of all, tenants very often don’t realise they’re being fleeced, and sign on the dotted line through sheer ignorance, denying themselves the basic human right to assess their options. The end result is inevitable: the landlord takes a cut, the end consumer forks out more money than they need to, and the service provider loses the incentive to deliver a good product.
Juanita Clark, CEO of the FTTH Council Africa, recently weighed in on the issue in a news story that broke on mybroadband.co.za. She highlights the “flagrant disregard to the obligations and expectations of the Electronic Communications Act,” and bemoans the “convoluted” agreements that landlords hide behind.
Are these sole-same landlords ready to start levying water and electricity services the same way? Of course not. As the mybroadband article succinctly notes, “property owners must accept that telecoms infrastructure is as critical to a business as water and electricity, and should be seen as a utility.”
The telecoms companies complicit in these agreements are contravening everything the ECA stands for and setting a dangerous precedent going forward.
The majority of the telecoms industry – Link Africa included – is committed to an open and transparent way of doing business, and we are more than willing to work with landlords to set up facilities and a pay a reasonable monthly fee for equipment space, power and basic amenities. In the end, we believe in the right to an open market where competition thrives. The internet is a basic human right, not a commodity that should be exploited on a whim.