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ICASA moves on spectrum allocations

ICASA is aware that delays in licensing high-demand spectrum has impacted negatively on competition and spill-over economic benefits, says councillor Marcia Socikwa.

High-demand spectrum in the 2.6GHz range will be licensed by the end of April next year, paving the way for operators to start rolling out the next generation of mobile technology.

The Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) this morning published a framework to license spectrum in the coveted 2.6GHz and 800MHz bands. The authority has proposed doing away with auctions and is instead inviting proposals from operators.

Allocating more spectrum in the 2.6GHz and 3.5Ghz ranges has been on the cards since 2006, but invitations to apply for frequency in the bands were withdrawn in June 2010. Since then, there has been very little movement towards auctioning the spectrum, which is vital for operators to move to the next generation of technology.

ICASA had been waiting for former communications minister Roy Padayachie to sign off on parameters that would have allowed it to go ahead with auctioning the coveted spectrum ranges.

Councillor Marcia Socikwa says ICASA is “mindful that the delays have impacted negatively on competition and the economic benefits attached to it”. However, she says: “A closer encounter with international and national developments on radio frequency spectrum suggests that perhaps the delays were fortuitous.”

In line with international developments, ICASA has put allocation of space in the 3.5GHz band on hold, and is instead proposing packages that pair space in 800MHz and 2.6GHz.

Operators want spectrum in the coveted 800MHz band to be able to roll out faster broadband, cost-effectively, because the band allows for deeper broadband penetration. This white space can be used to expand penetration across the country and allow SA to join the global move to LTE – commonly referred to as 4G.

Mobile companies also want space in 2.6GHz for LTE as the frequency penetrates deeper in densely built up areas.

Shared space

Dumisa Ngwenya, GM of engineering and technology, says ICASA is proposing an open access model, which will allow sharing of spectrum on the basis of no device locking, no content blocking and no retail competition.

In addition, ICASA is proposing a managed spectrum park model, which will allow a number of entities to share common spectrum on a self-managed basis, says Ngwenya.

Ngwenya explains that ICASA is proposing several packages, some of which bundle space in 2.6GHz and 800MHz, while others only offer space in one of the ranges. Operators that are licensed in both bands will have to cover 70% of SA's geography in five years, while licensees in 2.6GHz will have to cover 50% of the population in four years, he adds.

In order to qualify for a licence, companies will have to have a minimum 30% historically disadvantaged ownership level, already have electronic network communications licences, and be financially credible, says Ngwenya.

Space in package one, which includes both ranges, will be assigned to an individual licensee on wholesale access conditions.

Frequency in packages two and three only include an allocation in 2.6GHz and will be assigned to individual licensees without spectrum in the designated International Mobile Telecommunications bands. Sentech, Wireless Business Solutions and Neotel have been allocated frequency, according to ICASA's proposal.

Socikwa explains that ICASA's licensing process coincides with the Department of Communications' plan to ensure universal access by 2020. In addition, she says, the authority seeks to introduce new national and rural providers and ensure that entities that benefit from frequency contribute to broad-based black economic empowerment.

Frequency in the 800MHz band will only become available once SA has migrated to digital television. However, the authority has kicked off the process to allow operators to prepare for when spectrum becomes available.

SA is switching over from analogue signal to digital broadcasting, which will free up large chunks of spectrum in the 800MHz range – the so-called digital dividend.

The country is currently gearing up to turn on digital broadcast, and a soft launch is planned for next April. SA has set itself the ambitious target of turning off the outdated signal by the end of 2013.

Draft invitations to apply must be submitted by the end of January, and public hearings will be held between 1 and 3 February. The closing date for applications is 23 March and the licensing process will be finalised on 30 April.


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