After years-long delays, the now-urgent final policy directive on spectrum allocation is expected to be issued by the end of this month, Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams reiterates.
Over the past few months, movement has been seen in resolving the years-long limbo over the high-demand spectrum licensing and allocation, culminating in an engagement between the information and communication technology (ICT) industry and the new Communications Minister early this month.
The meeting had aimed to deliberate and finalise consultations on the interpretation of the spectrum licensing process as defined by the law.
This followed on the written submissions previously made by the sector on the spectrum policy.
“While stakeholders might not agree on all aspects as contained in the Electronic Communications Act (ECA), they must strive to find consensus that ensures that high demand spectrum is eventually licensed,” she said.
The processes and procedures surrounding spectrum are required to be in keeping with the provisions of the ECA, which will govern and continue to apply to the process of licensing high-demand spectrum.
“Some spectrum lies unused or underused in time or space and we would like to change that by making sure that spectrum is effectively and efficiently licensed in order to not only address revenue generation but also ensure inclusive participation,” Ndabeni-Abrahams adds.
The licensing of high-demand spectrum is deemed necessary to lessen resource constraints experienced by incumbent mobile operators, enable transformation of a historically vertically integrated market, level the playing field and enable the entry of new entrants into the market.
Further, it will contribute to reducing the cost to communicate and drive universal services and access.
Over the past few years, mobile operators desperate for the spectrum allocations have been voicing their concerns over the delays and their inability to provide high-quality services or lower costs because of a spectrum shortage.
The stalled spectrum policy had left the industry in a state of uncertainty, unable to efficiently deploy the next-generation technology required to meet increasing demand for connectivity and rising data traffic, with many refarming still-used spectrum and embarking on many workarounds to stretch capacity and coverage across their networks.
“Common ground should be reached between the policymaker and regulator to ensure that the process is concluded and spectrum is allocated timeously,” Ndabeni-Abrahams further urges.
The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) and the then Telecommunications and Postal Services Minister, Dr Siyabonga Cwele, clashed in 2016 after Icasa’s July 2016 invitation to apply for the allocation of high-demand spectrum was met with legal resistance by the department.
By September 2018, the parties had agreed to settle the court matter, with Icasa withdrawing the invitation to apply and Cwele withdrawing his legal challenge against the invitation.
This had followed President Cyril Ramaphosa’s call to “initiate the process for the allocation of high-demand radio spectrum to enable licensing” as a matter of urgency.
“Government recently decided to accelerate the licensing of the radio frequency spectrum in the 2.6 Ghz, 700 Mhz and 800 Mhz bands to hasten the growth of mobile communications,” he said at the time.
“We have finalised consultations with the telecommunications industry and other stakeholders to ensure allocation of spectrum reduces barriers to entry, promotes competition and reduces costs to consumers.”
Following a Cabinet decision in August last year, he says, Icasa was preparing to license available high demand spectrum.
Cabinet approved the study conducted by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to determine the spectrum requirements for the proposed wireless open-access network (WOAN) envisaged in the Integrated ICT Policy White Paper, which was approved by Cabinet in September 2016.
The CSIR study has confirmed that a portion of the radio frequency spectrum can be allocated to the WOAN, with excess capacity going to the industry.
It is expected that Icasa will be directed to issue an invitation to apply, accept and consider applications for an electronic communications network service licence and radio frequency spectrum licence to provide wholesale open access, while ensuring its sustainability and viability, and taking into account the outcomes of the study conducted by the CSIR.