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New report says measured spectrum allocation key to digital economy

Samuel Mungadze
By Samuel Mungadze, Africa editor
Johannesburg, 28 Sept 2020
Arthur Goldstuck, MD of World Wide Worx.
Arthur Goldstuck, MD of World Wide Worx.

Careful spectrum management is critical to digital economy growth, according to a new report, which says service providers are unanimous that 5G will be a key enabler of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR).

The report – “5G prospects for SA in 2021: The Operators”, by World Wide Worx – says South African service providers are also unanimous that a high price for bidding on spectrum will have a direct impact on the quality of service.

The Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) has promised it will auction the much-needed high-demand spectrum by March next year, and it is only after this process is finalised that 5G networks will start expanding in SA.

According to the report, the advent of 5G has brought this issue into sharp focus, emphasising the vast possibilities of communication technology, as well as the gap that exists in SA between the spectrum resources available and those utilised.

The report highlights the impact to consumers of policy decisions, saying to deliver affordable, widespread, quality mobile broadband services, operators require fair access to spectrum.

The research says the allocation of new spectrum is an opportunity to utilise communications technology for economic development for the country as a whole.

Further, spectrum will form a “foundation stone for the rollout of technologies underlying the fourth industrial revolution, such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of things, autonomous technologies and cloud computing.

“Consequently, regulators and government must avoid the pressure to advantage a small number of applicants that do not enable the spread of benefits, and ensure that the power and potential of 5G benefit the maximum number of South Africans,” says Arthur Goldstuck, MD of World Wide Worx.

The report comes on the back of Cabinet’s recent approval of the publication of the presidential commission on the 4IR report in the Government Gazette.

The key drivers of the presidential commission 4IR strategy include economic competiveness, responding to service delivery challenges, human capacity investment and responding to COVID-19.

Policy direction

Spectrum in SA is due to be issued in three main bands: 700-800MHz, referred to as low-frequency bands, and high-frequency spectrum across the 2.3GHz-2.6GHz and 3.5GHz bands.

The regulator is expected to issue an invitation to apply (ITA) for spectrum that is appropriate for high-speed mobile broadband by the end of this month.

“Based on the research findings, it is evident that operators require expedited allocation of spectrum that holds the following characteristics: contiguous and not fragmented, reasonably priced, and not interfered with by other radio signals,” says Goldstuck.

“Network infrastructure and mobile networking standards are consistently evolving, providing unprecedented opportunity for enablement, innovation and economic development. However, network providers in South Africa have not been provided with adequate spectrum to facilitate the upgrading of these networks and make most efficient use of these communication technologies, or to achieve their full potential.”

According to Goldstuck, “it is no coincidence that the release of the report comes shortly before the issuing of the ITA. We believed it was important for a consolidated view of the industry to be available to ICASA ahead of the invitation.”

The report says significant blocks of high-demand spectrum have not been issued to the major network operators by ICASA since 2005, when it allowed use of the 2.1GHz band for the rollout of 3G networks by Vodacom and MTN.

Cell C was allocated spectrum in 2011. Since then, the reports notes, operators have had to “refarm” 3G spectrum to facilitate the rollout of 4G to consumers. “As a result, investment that could have been made in providing affordable access to customers was diverted to servicing technical issues.

“Along with reasonable pricing, service providers say instalment payments of spectrum should be made available as an incentive. This will allow the regulator to charge prices which they deem fair while giving operators cash flow breaks from paying for spectrum in a lump sum.”

In the report, the urgency of digital migration of TV signals from analogue to digital was also raised by service providers as key to using the 700MHz and 800MHz spectrum bands, currently used by analogue TV broadcast.

“Digital migration will result in more efficient use of signals, freeing up large segments of spectrum for Internet access,” it says.

Goldstuck comments: “The industry believes that digital migration should be prioritised with extreme urgency to maximise the usefulness an operator can get from their temporary allocation. Until then, deployments over this band segment will be hindered by quality of service issues.”