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Allocating spectrum must top ICASA’s priority list, say analysts

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 31 Aug 2020

Following a drama-filled appointment process, the new council of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) should now prioritise freeing up high-demand spectrum, among other issues.

This is the word from analysts, who point to publishing the invitation to apply (ITA) for the scarce resource as an area that should be top of the telecoms regulator’s priority list.

While it planned to issue the ITA at end of June 2020, ICASA revealed it had to “slightly delay” publishing the ITA for the wholesale open access network and high-demand spectrum.

The ITA for International Mobile Telecommunications spectrum, commonly known as high-demand spectrum, is for licences in the 700MHz, 800MHz, 2.3GHz, 2.6GHz and 3.5GHz bands, which the regulator plans to auction by December 2020.

Mobile operators have been clamouring for access to new spectrum for over a decade, as they need it to provide faster and more widespread high-speed data services.

Furthermore, the release of spectrum through an auction has been high on government’s agenda for a while now, as it looks for ways to add funds to the fiscus, to benefit the South African economy.

Responding to oral questions in the National Assembly last week, president Cyril Ramaphosa reiterated that licensing of high-demand spectrum is still very much part of government’s fiscal and economic reforms to raise confidence and bolster economic growth.

All things spectrum

Worldwide Worx MD Arthur Goldstuck believes that everything on the telecoms regulator’s plate is a priority, but the most urgent is issuing the formal ITA for spectrum allocation.

“Digital terrestrial migration from analogue to digital TV signals is the next big one that affects the entire country and the economy. Beyond that, there are numerous less high-profile matters the council must get its collective head around.”

Mark Walker, associate VP of IDC in Sub-Sahara Africa, also says the release of spectrum should be a priority. “It has taken a long time to reach finality on appointment of the councillors. Hopefully, their decisions will now make up for the time lost and be focused on serving the South African public in terms of freeing up spectrum and ensuring affordable, high-quality access to technology-based services.

“The regulator must now move quickly and draw on international best practices while recognising local realities to define regulation that promotes investment, especially in rural access.”

Turning to the controversy around appointing the councillors, Goldstuck says one would hope the appointment means less peripheral drama for the regulator, and more of a sense of maturity in the relationship between the regulator and the government department that oversees it.

“The personal and political dynamics that have dominated this relationship over the past five years or more has in effect held back the entire economy, and we need pragmatism to prevail.

“The single biggest ongoing challenge for the regulator is to move with greater speed and efficiency, but this is often dictated by the vagaries of the ministry of communications,” he says.

Top decisions

The South African telecoms regulator defines its council as its highest decision-making body. It consists of eight members and the chairperson.

Those appointed to serve on the council are selected on the principles of transparency, openness and accountability, commitment to fairness and freedom of expression.

On 24 August, ICASA swore in five new councillors following their appointment by the minister of communications and digital technologies, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, as published in the Government Gazette on 21 August.

The appointees are Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng, who has been appointed chairperson of the council, Peter Zimri, Luthando Mkumathela, Yolisa Kedama and Dr Charles Lewis, to join the three other members that remained on the council.

Their appointment brought the total number of councillors to eight, with one vacancy left to round up the nine-member council.

In a letter addressed to National Assembly speaker Thandi Modise, last week Ndabeni-Abrahams states that her ministry has recommended Zolani Matthews to be appointed to fill the sixth vacancy on the ICASA council.

Matthews was among the initial 10 names referred to by Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Communications to the minister in order of priority, a move that reportedly did not sit well with her.

The names included Modimoeng, Kedama, Matthews, Zimri, Mkutumela, Lewis, Amanda Cuba, Sandisiwe Ncemane, Dikeledi Mushi and Ashraf Patel.

Responding to ITWeb, ICASA indicates it will swear-in a new councillor as soon as the appointment is published in the Government Gazette.