Battle of the Agencies: ICASA vs. CompCom

In dispute over competition-law & merger enforcement in South Africa, Communications agency raises its voice

Jurisdictionally crossed wires and agency disputes in antitrust are no longer the exclusive playground of the FCC and DOJ, of COMESA’s CCC and the Kenyan CAK, or DOJ and FTC.  They have now reached the shores of the Republic of South Africa as well, in the form of the Independent Communication Authority of South Africa (“ICASA”) challenging the country’s Competition Commission’s de facto exclusive right to review merger deals.

Factual Background

ICASA, created in July 2000 by the Independent Communication Authority of South Africa Amendment Act is reported to be in a jurisdictional dispute with the country’s traditional merger watchdog, the South African Competition Commission (“SACC”).  ICASA wants the power to take a closer look at relevant deals such as MTN and Telkom’s network sharing and the announced Vodacom / Neotel deal, on which AAT has reported previously (see Telecom adversaries to remain “principled” in their competing bids for 4G spectrum, Internet & mobile operators at war: merge, acquire, complain, and our prior reports mentioning ICASA here).

ICASA’s specialized “Markets & Competition” division is tasked to deal with promoting “competition, innovation and investment in respect of services and facilities provided in the electronic communications, broadcasting and postal sectors, whilst ensuring account cultural diversity, especially regarding broadcasting content.”  The authority as a whole is “mandated to create competition in the telecommunications, broadcasting and the postal industries. In turn, competition brings about affordable prices for goods and services rendered and provides value for money to consumers.”

Legal Standard – “Public Interest”?

In recent reports by the New Telegraph and HumanIPO, ICASA is said to have voiced discontent with the Competition Commission’s failure to send proposed communications-related M&A deals to the authority.

That said, it is unclear to AAT precisely which legal standard ICASA wishes to impose on any potential future merger review it might undertake.  In the U.S., notably, the FCC’s standard of review is a more flexible public-interest standard, vs. the “classic” antitrust agencies’ (FTC/DOJ) “substantial lessening of competition” standard.

Regardless of (at least our) uncertainty of the legal standard to be applied, ICASA is quoted as saying that deals cleared by the SACC may still require separate approval from the Communications authority, irrespective of any competition-law based decision reached by the Competition Commission:

“While consolidation is a global phenomenon and anticipated in the market, all such deals may require regulatory approval.”

“The authority is aware of what is currently before the Competition Commission; and in accordance with our institutional arrangements with the Competition Commission we will collaborate, however, that in no way negates the regulatory approvals required from ICASA.”

In addition to the previous lack of coordination between the Commission and ICASA on merger reviews, there has also been criticism of the country’s limited allocation of more frequency spectrum to wireless operators.

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