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Gigaba's action plan for spectrum

Finance minister Malusi Gigaba.

Finance minister Malusi Gigaba.

Finance minister Malusi Gigaba has outlined government's "inclusive growth action plan", including new timelines for the next steps in the process for the allocation of in-demand high frequency spectrum for telecoms services.

The document released by National Treasury on Thursday follows the release of first quarter GDP data for 2017, which confirmed SA is in a technical economic recession. The action plan contains implementation timelines for key structural reforms across 14 different areas, one of which is telecoms. Gigaba said the interventions "are the beginning of a response programme that will be unpacked in the MTBPS [Medium Term Budget Policy Statement] and the 2018 Budget".

Gigaba said by August 2017, the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS) and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) need to "conduct a high-level study on wireless open access network (WOAN) spectrum needs with a view to license the remainder to the industry".

The plan for the establishment of a WOAN is part of government's National Integrated ICT Policy White Paper, which proposed a shake-up of the previous policy framework for spectrum allocation in favour of an "open access regime". The WOAN is going to be "a public-private sector owned and managed consortium", but how exactly it will work is still unclear.

The long-awaited white paper, which was three years in the making, was finalised and published in September 2016, and is supposed to replace the separate white papers on telecommunication (1996) and postal services (1998).

The minister of the DTPS, Siyabonga Cwele, had already committed, back in May, to conduct the high-level study to determine if the WOAN would utilise all high-demand spectrum for its 4G network, or if there would be additional spectrum left over for private companies.

Mobile operators and wireless service providers have, for years, been asking for more spectrum to be released by government so they can roll-out high-speed mobile and broadband services, improve their networks and provide better services to customers.

Gigaba's new action plan says by December 2017, Cwele needs to issue a policy directive mandating the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) to commence the licensing process for spectrum and the licensing process needs to be completed by December 2018.

Additional spectrum allocation was held up again last year by a squabble between the DTPS and ICASA. The DTPS in September 2016 succeeded in interdicting ICASA from continuing with a planned spectrum auction, which would have given telecoms operators the opportunity to bid for spectrum in the highly sought-after 700MHz, 800MHz and 2.6GHz bands. The DTPS believed ICASA should have waited for the white paper to be published before beginning the spectrum auction process. In February 2017, ICASA announced it had deferred the timeframe for the auction indefinitely.

The white paper initially proposed current licence holders may have to return some high-demand spectrum, which met with strong resistance from telecoms operators, but Cwele in May also backtracked on that issue, saying there was "no urgency to return the current high-demand spectrum from licensees until the end of the current licence period to ensure investment certainty".

The "inclusive growth action plan" also says Cwele, along with the economic development minister, Ebrahim Patel, will be responsible for directing the Competition Commission to investigate SA's data prices, with the timeline set for this month.

Last week ICASA announced it had published a notice in the Government Gazette "of its intention to conduct an inquiry to determine the priority markets in the electronic communications sector". It said this was part of a number of initiatives ICASA was doing to address the high cost of communication in SA.

Gigaba also said the roll-out of phase one of the SA Connect Broadband programme needs to commence by next month.

National Treasury's telecommunications deadlines

Intervention

Responsible authority

Timelines

Direct Competition Commission to investigate the data prices

Minister of DTPS/EDD

July 2017

Conduct high-level study on WOAN spectrum needs with a view to license the remainder to the industry

Minister of DTPS (CSIR)

August 2017

Commence roll-out of phase one of SA Connect Broadband programme

Minister of DTPS

August 2017

Issue policy directive mandating ICASA to commence the licensing process

Minister of DTPS

December 2017

Complete the spectrum licensing process Minister of DTPS

Minister of DTPS

December 2018

 


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