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Parliament to refine telecoms policy

The South African parliament will begin hearings on ground rules...

Cape Town - The South African parliament will begin hearings on ground rules for a second fixed-line phone company on Tuesday, but will not consider changes to policies established by the cabinet, a senior legislator said.

Nkenke Kekana, chairman of the parliamentary communications committee, told reporters on Wednesday that legislators would seek to refine and improve the Telecommunications Amendment Bill that will lay the legislative foundation for competition to the state-controlled Telkom phone company.

"Many submissions are likely to challenge some of the time frames that are there, in the policy, but it is not up to us as a committee to change those time frames because, for us to do so, would be to review policy and that is not for us to do," he told reporters.

The hearings run for four days from next Tuesday.

South Africa is expected to issue an invitation to apply for the second fixed-line licence by November and to issue a licence to begin operations in May next year.

After more than a year of uncertainty, the cabinet last month issued final policy guidelines including a decision to licence one rival to Telkom, and not two, as originally intended.

The cabinet guidelines included protections for Telkom such as an assurance that carrier selection, which would allow Telkom subscribers to elect to use certain rival services, would not be allowed during the first two years of competition.

M-Cell, the mobile phone company that says it wants to bid for the licence, is expected to seek a reduction in the protections offered to Telkom, including the immediate implementation of carrier selection and telephone number portability between operators.

"We have to do a balancing act here. We have to ensure that operators are happy and that consumers are happy," Kekana said.

He said the committee and parliament also had an obligation to protect the market environment in which the government plans to list about 20 percent of Telkom, the telecommunications utility already 30 percent owned by SBC Communications of the United States and Telekom Malaysia.

"We need to help to create an environment for the Telkom listing in which it can be successful," he said.

Public Enterprises Minister Jeff Radebe said on Tuesday the government remained committed to the Telkom listing in the financial year ending on March 31, but that market conditions could force a delay.