So, I’ve moved on from righteous indignation yesterday to outright disbelief today.  News this week that the South African communications regulator (ICASA) have sent their enforcers  in to confiscate Dabba’s WiFi equipment in Orange Farm makes me angry enough to spit.

If you read this blog, you know that Dabba are an amazing, innovative start-up offering low-cost voice and data access in South African townships using inexpensive off-the-shelf WiFi equipment.  Innovative enough to be profiled in the Economist and to attract the attention of international venture capitalists Hasso-Plattner.

Yet, apparently innovation and affordable access for those who can least afford access are simply not a priority for the South African communications regulator.  If you want innovation, you must consult the Department of Science and Technology, whose headline today ironically reads:

Home page for Department of Science and Technology South Africa

Home page for Department of Science and Technology South Africa

Apparently in South Africa the answer to the above is Don’t Bother! because whatever help you manage to get, bureaucracies like ICASA will find a way to shut you down.

And for affordable access, I suggest you consult the Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (USAASA) whose performance in improving access in South Africa would be laughable if it were not so tragic.

ICASA, it seems, are too busy fulfilling their role as the enforcer of Telkom‘s ever more desperate attempts to maintain their stranglehold on the South African telecoms market.  Yes, it was Telkom that filed a complaint with ICASA that Dabba’s network was interfering with their own in Orange Farm.  Now for a a start, what is Telkom doing using WiFi spectrum for their infrastructure?  Don’t they have access to enough spectrum of their own that they have to come and squeeze people out of the ISM bands?   Yet, as it turns out, Dabba have been aware of Telkom’s use of WiFi spectrum in Orange Farm and had, or so they thought, come to an arrangement.  Telkom uses Channel 6 and Dabba agreed to keep that and surrounding channels free on their network.

Apparently this was not good enough for Telkom who used their influence to ensure that ICASA went and completely shut Dabba down.  Their rationale for shutting Dabba down was that some of their equipment was not “type approved”.  Anyone who has worked with WiFi equipment before knows that it is all pretty bog-standard and if you wanted to do something illicit like increase the power of the transmitter, it is as easy to do with “type-approved” equipment as any other.  This is obviously just a convenient technicality for ICASA.

In shutting them down and removing their wireless access points, they managed to close down access for a skills development centre and an aids orphanage.  In an interview last week, renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs makes the point that connectivity “will be enormously beneficial for Africa’s overall development and for its capacity as a partner in providing global public goods”.  It would appear that the bigger picture is lost on ICASA, nevermind Telkom.

Recently in the U.S. prominent activist and lawyer Lawrence Lessig called for the the U.S. communications regulator (the FCC) to be disbanded.  While I think that position may be a little extreme for the U.S., I think that the newly elected government of South Africa in April 2009 could do a lot worse than to consider whether the slate should not be wiped clean with ICASA.

Posted by Steve Song

@stevesong local telco policy activist. social entrepreneur. founder of @villagetelco #africa #telecoms #opensource #privacy #wireless #spectrum #data