ICASA revises ‘tactical approach’ to WOAN process

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The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) is reviewing the timelines relating to the licensing of the wholesale open access network (WOAN).

This, after the telecoms regulator last month announced a truncated timetable in relation to the licensing of the WOAN, which included the publication of a consultative document on 19 November.

However, given the sensitivity of the spectrum licensing process and the ongoing consultation processes, as well as numerous continuous related considerations, including legal imperatives, ICASA has resolved to temporarily suspend the timetable relating to the licensing of the WOAN, says the regulator in a statement.

It explains this is done to allow the conclusion of the consultation process relating to the permanent licensing of the International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) spectrum, enabling the authority to interrogate the impact of the outcomes on the licensing of the WOAN.

IMT spectrum is also known as high-demand spectrum. In order to ensure more telecoms operators gain access to high-demand spectrum, ICASA has created a policy which requires that a portion of unallocated high-demand spectrum be assigned to the WOAN.

The WOAN will operate as a single network, built via a consortium, which will sell high-demand spectrum to telecoms operators on a wholesale basis.

Creating competition

Government believes the WOAN will enable more competition in the telecoms market that will result in data prices coming down.

In its statement, ICASA notes the consultation processes in relation to the licensing of high-demand spectrum are under way and progressing well.

Therefore, the authority resolved not to publish the envisaged WOAN consultation document on 19 November as previously communicated, says the regulator.

In the intervening period, the authority will engage other international jurisdictions to draw lessons from their experiences on the licensing of a typical WOAN.

ICASA chairperson Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng says there is a compelling reason to revise this tactical approach with regards to the WOAN process.

“This WOAN licensing process is aimed at introducing an additional credible player with a view to promote competition in the information and communication technologies sector for the benefit of all South Africans.

“Therefore, it is very important to enhance our knowledge and develop a holistic approach to the WOAN process. Such additional engagements will provide a clearer guidance in terms of how effective and economical this licensing process will be,” says Modimoeng.

Based on the outcomes of further engagements and subsequent analysis of the model, coupled with the findings from the IMT spectrum consultation processes, ICASA says it will publish a notice advising of the process to be followed in respect of the licensing of the WOAN by no later than March 2022.

“The authority remains committed to ensuring transparency in its process of issuing the Individual Electronic Communications Network Service and Radio Frequency Spectrum licences for the purpose of operating a WOAN,” says ICASA.

“The authority further confirms there will still be radio frequency spectrum set aside for the WOAN even as the auction is taking place, and the authority is of the view that the licensing of the WOAN will indeed bring much-needed structural reform to the mobile voice and data services markets.”

ICASA has set aside radio frequency spectrum within the 700MHz, 2 600MHz and 3 500MHz spectrum bands for the WOAN.

The WOAN invitation to apply provides for a radio frequency spectrum licence to be issued for the WOAN, which will be valid for a period of 20 years, renewable annually on payment of a prescribed licence fee.

BEE boost

Applicants for the WOAN licence must be at least 70% owned by South African citizens and  at least 50% black-owned. It must also be at least 20% owned by black women.

ICASA has also imposed empowerment obligations on successful spectrum bidders, requiring them to support the WOAN through procuring, collectively, at least 30% of the WOAN’s national capacity on a proportional basis.

However, the concept of the WOAN has been met with some scepticism after failing to bear fruit in some countries where it has been implemented.

Industry bodies like the GSM Association have also cautioned about the implementation of WOAN models, noting they do not deliver on promises to provide better coverage, more competition, or lower prices for consumers, with most failing to get off the ground.

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