Appellate Review, Kenya, mergers, Telecoms

Kenya’s Competition Tribunal: Airtel/Telkom merger generates first decision

By Ruth Mosoti, Esq. (Primerio Ltd. Kenya practice head)

On 4th May 2020, the Kenyan Competition Tribunal made its first decision after considering the application for review of the Airtel-Telkom merger where they contested 7 out of 8 the conditions imposed. The competition Act allows the tribunal to look at the merits of the Competition Authority’s (CAK) decision therefore and has power to confirm, modify or reverse any order issued either partially or wholly. In this particular decision the Tribunal did exercise all these powers.  The decision of the Tribunal was guided by whether CAK’s decision promoted or protected effective competition in the telecommunications sector, enhanced the welfare of the Kenyan people and prevented unfair and misleading conduct throughout Kenya among other things.

First, the Tribunal confirmed the condition set in relation to employment. This public interest consideration varies on a case by case basis hence the difference in its application. In some mergers CAK has limited the retention of employees to 12 months and in others it is limited to 3 years. In this particular case, it was limited to 2 years. The tribunal agreed that due to the specialized nature of the industry and the presence of only two players in that market post-merger, then the condition imposed in regard to employment was justified.

Ruth Mosoti (author)

Secondly, the 2 conditions in relation to spectrum licensing and management were varied in their entirety primarily because it was found that CAK had no basis to interfere with licensing conditions imposed by the Communications Authority. It was their view that the Communications Authority was the competent authority to govern the licensing terms and, in the event, that there are any competition concerns then, these two regulators would consult. The imposition of these two conditions were deemed to be unnecessary. It was emphasized that competition law is there to protect competition and not competitors.

Thirdly, the condition on restricting entering into any sale agreement was modified to bring clarity. As imposed by CAK any form of sale was prohibited which was found to be blanket, therefore unreasonable. The Tribunal clarified that the merged entity would be able to enter into sale agreements in the ordinary course of business however the merged undertaking cannot be sold for a period of 5 years. In addition to this, the condition of audit in case the merged undertaking became a failing firm was done away with because CAK failed to justify why it applied the “failing firm doctrine” post-merger. In any event should this happen, the Tribunal reasoned that this would require approval from CAK therefore an unnecessary condition at this point.

The conditions in relation to contracts managed by Telkom on behalf of the government were retained however the tribunal clarified that this was not to interfere with the freedom of contract between the Kenyan government and the merged entity. While it is unconceivable how the government would agree to preferential terms while entering into these contracts without offending the law (this would be to my understanding that you pay for a government service/product depending on who you are which would be outright discriminatory)

Lastly, imposing a requirement for annual reports to CAK with no time limit was not justified. The appellants asked for 2 years and the Tribunal obliged. This was based on the fact that most of the conditions imposed on the merged entity after the review would lapse after 2 years therefore the tribunal deemed two years to be a justifiable time frame to comply with the 8th condition.

The Tribunal’s take on the procedural issues raised by the appellants is quite interesting. On the issue as to what constituted a “fair administrative process”, it was of the opinion that CAK had accorded the appellants adequate notice and opportunity to respond. To contextualize this, the appellants received a notice of a proposed decision and had a meeting on 25th October 2019, the Appellants contested these conditions and on the same date after the meeting, CAK sent amended conditions. The appellants advocates asked for time to consult their clients on the amended conditions.  The CAK however went ahead to issue a notice of determination on 31st October 2019 which was 6 days later. CAK’s position on this was that the board having sat, the decision issued on 31st October 2019 was final. This being the case, the only avenue available to the Appellants was to challenge it before the tribunal. The position by the tribunal that the Appellants had been given adequate time to challenge procedural fairness bearing in mind that the 30 days were to lapse on 24th November 2019 is baffling at best.

In conclusion, this decision being the first of has accorded practitioners an insight as to how CAK arrive at its decisions as well as the considerations of the tribunal in case of appeals. We now look forward to its determination of the other appeals in relation to RTPs before it.

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consumer protection, dominance, East Africa, financial institutions, innovation, Kenya, mobile payments, Telecoms, Uncategorized

Tech antitrust news: disrupting M-Pesa mobile payment monopoly? cashless NFC mandatory?

Disruption & entry — mandatory cashlessness — and alleged collective dominance

Perhaps they don’t realise it themselves, but the journalists at ITWeb Africa have written antitrust/competition law strories in three of their recent reports, covering the rapidly growing and lucrative tech world in Africa: their stories range (in antitrust terms) from collective dominance in Africa’s tech sphere, to a challenger’s new entry in mobile payments, to a mandatory government-backed mobile NFC system for Kenyan transit commuters that allegedly causes more consumer harm than benefit by going cashless and giving the spoils all to one monopolist.

We take each in turn.

Disruption to M-Pesa’s mobile payment crown?

It looks as though the M-Pesa crown may be taken through the competitive process (and without active intervention by the competition authority) after all:

Equity Bank is about to join Airtel’s challenge to the leading position of Safaricom Limited’s M-Pesa service (on which AAT has written extensively before).  The magazine reports that an ultra-thin SIM card technology and the Kenyan bank have reached a pact that will allow them to compete with M-Pesa’s service, on top of existing user SIM cards.

Equity Bank is “determined to challenge” Safaricom’s M-Pesa mobile money service with the help of Taiwanese headquartered Taisys, which claims that the Communications Authority of Kenya “last month tentatively gave Equity Bank the go-ahead to use thin SIMs for one year.”  Equity is reported to be the “largest bank in East Africa with almost 9 million bank accounts.”

The new technology of a “stick-on” slim-SIM card allows the user “to execute mobile banking transactions, releasing the bank from the limitations of a telco-issued banking SIM.”  Safaricom had previously complained to the authority, arguing that PIN theft and denial of service are real risks that counsel against use of new SIMs.

In other related news, second M-Pesa challenger Airtel has secured a contract with the Kenyan Revenue Service that allows Kenyan citizens to pay their taxes using Airtel’s mobile money service.
The cashless economy: is the imminent Kenyan My1963 NFC payment system anti-competitive?

In this story about Nairobi’s public transport system’s much-derided effort to go entirely cashless – dubbed “My1963” -, the magazine reports that the Consumer Federation of Kenya (Cofek) claims that the digital payment system benefits “all except the consumer”.  In Cofek’s statement (“7 reasons why Cofek will fight to stop the #My1963 PSV’s cashless payment fraud“), the federation makes seven distinct arguments against the legality of the scheme.  Two relevant criticisms from the competition-law perspective are the following:

  1. no competitive bidding process: the body alleges that, due to politicians’ ties to banking and other interests, the correct process for entertaining competitive bids was not followed in accordance with proper public procurement rules.
  2. supra-competitive (monopolistic) pricing: an “exorbitant” 3% commission is being charged by the service provider of the system, as agreed between the Kenyan National Transport Safety Authority and the banks.

Cofek also urges the Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) to “investigate the #My1963 and entire cashless payment system with a view to finding it uncompetitive, predatory and anti-consumer and market interest” [sic].

Viber, WhatsApp, YouTube: dominant in Africa?

In its report on alleged dominance by three tech companies, the paper begins by pointing out the (some more and some less) startling statistics:

WhatsApp is the leading third-party messaging application, Viber has overtaken Skype as the leading VoIP service on several networks and YouTube is the top video streaming app. … on Africa’s mobile networks WhatsApp accounts for 7% of total traffic, while Viber has overtaken Skype as a VoIP service. Streaming video accounts for just over 6% of downstream traffic – significantly lower than North America and Europe where it accounts for more than 30%.

WAP Browsing has seen a significant decline in traffic share thanks to increased adoption of smartphones throughout the region [–Ed.: on the latter point, the journal also has an interesting separate piece, discussing the new era of WiFi connectivity in Africa].

Being called “dominant” may be a badge of honor to the sales staff, but it is a dangerous moniker when viewed by the competition-law enforcers through their monopolisation lens.  WhatsApp, Viber and YouTube (whose parent is, of course, the already dominant Google) may therefore have to begin thinking about treading more lightly in terms of their dealings with competitors on the African continent, lest they wish to prompt governmental scrutiny from the likes of the South African Competition Commission, the Kenyan Competition Authority, or COMESA’s CCC.

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