If you live in a “community scheme” such as a residential security estate, you probably access the Internet and make calls via either ADSL or fibre, with the necessary cabling running in underground ducting installed by the developer. 

Unless your complex is brand new, that ducting is probably occupied by Telkom’s copper cabling, and in 2017 Telkom won an important case against a Home Owners Association (HOA) which wanted Vodacom to install fibre for it in the existing ducting. That outcome left HOAs and homeowners around the country facing the delay, disruption and cost of having to create new underground infrastructure.We discuss a recent Supreme Court of Appeal decision reversing that…

“Reliable electronic communications go beyond just benefiting the commercial interest of licensees to the detriment of ownership of property. The statute [Electronic Communications Act] is designed to avoid this no-winner conflict. What it seeks is to bring our country to the edge of social and economic development for rural and urban residents in a world in which technology is so obviously linked to progress.” (Extract from Constitutional Court decision quoted in the judgment below)

If you haven’t already done so, you are no doubt thinking of upgrading soon to the “superfast broadband” provided by fibre optic cabling. In any event ADSL is about to disappear with Telkom’s plans to shut down its copper network and migrate ADSL customers to either fibre (where available) or LTE.

In a community scheme, your challenge is that your chosen fibre service provider must either use your existing underground ducting or start digging new trenches and putting in new ducting, sleeves and manholes. The expense and disruption of the latter option naturally make it very much second prize.

So Telkom no doubt celebrated its 2017 High Court victory over Vodacom and a Home Owners Association (HOA) restoring to Telkom exclusive and undisturbed possession of its underground ducting in a residential estate. 

The fight, however, had only just begun. The HOA and Vodacom took this decision on appeal to the SCA (Supreme Court of Appeal), and this time they succeeded.

The complex and the copper cables

  • In what is no doubt a pretty standard historical scenario for residential complexes, the developers of a private security lifestyle residential estate had some 20 years ago asked Telkom to provide telecommunication services to the estate, and had built and installed the infrastructure at the developer’s cost but in compliance with plans provided by Telkom and under Telkom’s oversight. 
  • Correspondence at the time indicated that “Telkom envisaged that the infrastructure would be for its exclusive use”, and since then it had always had access to the network and maintained it. 
  • When the HOA rejected an offer by Telkom to install fibre and instead awarded a contract to do so to Vodacom, Vodacom installed its fibre in the Telkom ducting. Long story short, Telkom successfully asked the High Court for a “spoliation order” restoring “undisturbed possession” of the infrastructure to it.
  • On appeal however, the SCA ruled that in fact “Telkom’s actual use of the ducts, cables and its service to its customers remains undisturbed.  It has not lost possession of anything. It remains entitled to enter into [the estate] for the purposes set out in s 22 [of the Electronic Communications Act] and its network remains fully functional as it was prior to Vodacom’s conduct. There was accordingly no spoliation.” The spoliation order was accordingly set aside.

Note that the judgment itself contains much that will be of interest to lawyers on the questions of “servitutal rights”, “quasi-possession of rights”, and the ins and outs of the Electronic Communications Act – but the important practical outcome for HOAs and complex homeowners is that it is now easier to choose your own fibre installer because, provided your installer does nothing to disturb Telkom’s use of the ducts (and its service to its clients), the free space in the existing underground infrastructure is available for use.

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