ICASA looks to expedite spectrum licensing process

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 05 Nov 2019
ICASA CEO Willington Ngwepe. (Source: ICASA Twitter page)
ICASA CEO Willington Ngwepe. (Source: ICASA Twitter page)

The Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) aims to expedite the spectrum licensing process, with the intention to grant licences sometime next year, said CEO Willington Ngwepe.

Ngwepe made the comments during an interview with CNBC Africa, when he outlined ICASA’s plans following the publication of the much-anticipated information memorandum on the licensing process for the assignment of high-demand spectrum (International Mobile Telecommunication spectrum).

South Africa’s last big set of spectrum issued was in the 2.1GHz band, which helped the operators in their 3G network deployment. Vodacom and MTN were allocated such spectrum, respectively, in 2004 and 2005, while Cell C received such spectrum in 2011.

During this time, mobile operators have had to split and refarm their spectrum resources to mitigate spectrum shortages and expand 4G availability.

“Without putting ourselves under pressure – we appreciate that this is a process that has been long overdue and have been advised or requested to make sure that we expedite it – I would say we are looking at a period of six to eight months before we actually finally conclude the process and hopefully grant the licences,” said Ngwepe.

Wholesale ambitions

The release of the ICASA memorandum follows the policy direction on high-demand spectrum and the wholesale open access network (WOAN) issued by communications and digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, in July.

When she issued the policy, Ndabeni-Abrahams highlighted there are over 400 players that hold electronic communications network service licences but cannot access spectrum, due to its scarcity.

The minister noted this has an adverse effect on competition, contributes to the high cost to communicate and serves as a barrier to entry for new entrants and SMMEs.

Government has proposed the WOAN to address these challenges.

Ngwepe told the broadcast channel that the existing operators are certainly expected to come to the party and bid for spectrum. However, there might be a couple of partnerships that come up from those players (400 with network service licences) that have not been able to access the spectrum.

“The qualifying criterion is that the people who are going to be bidding must at least have what we call a network service licence, so they must already have the licence to build the infrastructure.”

He expanded: “This is a very capital-intensive industry. I expect there might be one or two more players that come up, especially given the policy pronouncement for the establishment of a new wholesale open access operator.

“The intention behind that operator is for it to become an infrastructure base player to enable increased service base competition – that is likely to be the main new entrant. The existing operators have been waiting for the spectrum, so there will be a lot more that they will probably be able to do from getting access to the spectrum.”

Treading cautiously

Meanwhile, Ndabeni-Abrahams has noted the release of the information memorandum, saying she is studying the document and will provide further communication in due course.

In a statement from her department, the minister commends ICASA for its undertaking to expedite the spectrum licensing process.

“Its successful completion will enable interested parties to materialise investments that are much-needed in the sector through both infrastructure and services procurement. Further, the IMT [International Mobile Telecommunication] spectrum licensing will benefit the people of South Africa through increased competition, transformation of the sector and a lower cost to communicate.”

ICASA’s CEO hopes for a smooth spectrum licensing process, adding the regulator will get a sense of any issues concerning the information memorandum once interested parties have made their submissions on the consultation document.

“It could very well be that some of the comments come and they say we think you are not understanding what the policy objectives are, or we think the manner in which you have structured the lots or the blocks for the spectrum is not going to achieve the necessary objectives from a market structure perspective, competition or facilitating transformation.

“We will know when the representations come on the consultation document whether we are headed for tough waters, or whether it is going to be a smooth process,” concluded Ngwepe. “I’m hoping for a smooth process.”