New policy allows spectrum trading, subletting

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 30 May 2024
Communications minister Mondli Gungubele.
Communications minister Mondli Gungubele.

Communications minister Mondli Gungubele has published the revised Radio Frequency Spectrum Policy of South Africa.

The document was published in a Government Gazette on Tuesday. Through this spectrum policy, government aims to advance long-term public interest in the use of spectrum as a finite natural resource.

The spectrum policy also serves to facilitate and co-ordinate national spectrum management approaches for the implementation of electronic communications networks to enable the socio-economic development of its citizens.

It derives its principles and guidelines from the 2016 ICT White Paper, and the 2010 spectrum policy of SA, and has taken into consideration written comments from the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) and interested persons.

According to Gungubele, the policy seeks to utilise spectrum to drive broader and inclusive economic participation and development for all.

He points out that the rapid change in technology increases the demand for access to many segments of the spectrum.

“As the demand for spectrum increases, in certain spectrum bands, the demand for accessible spectrum exceeds supply due to competing interests for the spectrum resources, shortages and limitations on the availability of the scarce natural resource,” says the minister in the document.

“Sharing and compatibility of spectrum in the same or adjacent frequency bands and the same geographic areas is not always feasible. Hence, it creates a challenge to avail more or additional spectrum (for both allocation to services and licensing to users). Without additional spectrum, new services (eg, mobile services offered through 5G technologies and beyond) cannot be deployed.”

Unclear roles and responsibilities

The primary purpose of this spectrum policy is to address the gaps and limitations that were identified in the ICT White Paper, which includes unclear roles and responsibilities between the minister and ICASA, contributing to institutional inefficiencies.

It also identifies “gaps in the spectrum management regime” regarding spectrum coordination, spectrum fees, spectrum trading, sharing, spectrum re-farming and migration of services, and alignment of national universal service obligations to respond to government policy objectives.

With the document, government is also looking to ensure the cost to communicate is affordable.

According to the document, the current legislative framework for managing the spectrum is over 20 years old.

“While there have been various reviews of regulatory frameworks and policy directions over the past two decades to advance the sector, this policy recognises that several factors need to be considered to enable an effective spectrum management regime,” reads the document.

“These factors include rapidly-evolving technologies, emerging technologies, the proliferation of new digital technologies, the evolution of electronic communications networks resulting in changing market demand and structures, globalisation, localisation, and an increased focus on public safety and security. The spectrum policy supports a review of the legislative framework governing the use of spectrum to respond to these changes.”

The goal of this spectrum policy is also to support the allocation of frequency bands for the various radio-communication services in the best interest of the public, government services, safety-of-life and advance government policy objectives through the use of spectrum.

In terms of this policy, a spectrum licensee has the discretion to use the spectrum which has been assigned or awarded. The spectrum will be licensed on a “technology-neutral basis” or allow the spectrum licensees the choice of what technology to use to provide a specified service, and on a “service-neutral basis” or allow the spectrum licensees to decide what service to provide.

It does not allow licensees to hoard spectrum and directs ICASA to put measures in place that prevent hoarding of spectrum, including mechanisms for the implementation of the “use it or lose it” principle.

Licensed spectrum that is unused for more than 24 months will be subjected to the use it or lose it principle unless prior arrangements are made with the regulator.

Spectrum trading, sharing, subletting

Gungubele adds that to promote economic development, market-based approaches, such as spectrum trading, spectrum sharing, dynamic spectrum access use and spectrum “subletting” and/or sharing between licensees which ensures public policy gains in the use of spectrum are permitted with prior approval of the authority.

The authority must set standard operating rules, terms and conditions applicable for trading, sharing and sub-letting of spectrum.

The policy directs ICASA to put in place a regulatory framework which clarifies spectrum trading rules between licensees and promotes approaches that prohibit monopolisation of spectrum, dominance and anti-competitive behaviours in the market.

It states that emerging technologies enable more efficient use of spectrum, either limiting the power to avoid interference to primary users; or tapping into spectrum that is unused at a given time and geographic location.

To promote spectrum efficiency, coordination for the purpose of spectrum sharing and the use of technologies that will enable greater spectrum sharing among different users is permitted with the prior approval of ICASA.

To harness rapid technological advances and changes, the refarming of spectrum for use by a different technology is permitted by the policy.

It notes the refarmed spectrum will be treated in terms of its new use to the extent practically possible with the respective spectrum fees and obligations imposed accordingly.

The policy shall be reviewed at any time as determined by the minister.