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Mixed reaction as telcos ponder new spectrum directive

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There is mixed reaction from local mobile operators, but an overwhelming sense of optimism, as they consider the implications of the new policy directive on spectrum allocation announced on Friday by of communications and digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.

Ndabeni-Abrahams issued the long-awaited policy and policy direction for the licensing of high-demand spectrum, paving the way for wholesale open access network (WOAN) licensing.

Mobile operators have been waiting for years for allocation of spectrum in order to provide faster and more widespread high-speed data services.

Reacting to the new spectrum allocation policy, the majority of the mobile operators view the latest developments positively, acknowledging the new steps taken by government to address industry concerns indicate a more consumer-oriented direction.

The new directive emphasises the need for affordable access to wireless, Internet and other telecom services throughout the country.

For years, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) could not go ahead with plans to license spectrum in the 800MHz and 2 600MHz bands until there was a proper policy directive from the department.

MTN, which is SA’s second largest mobile operator by subscriber numbers, seems to appreciate the new government directive.

The operator was previously critical of the pace of spectrum allocation in the country. Late last year, MTN ranked SA with war zones on spectrum allocation, telling journalists that of the 21 countries in which it operates, its local operation has the least spectrum assigned to it outside countries that face conflict situations.

Now, MTN says: “We are greatly encouraged that Cabinet has approved the policy and policy directive for the licensing of the high-demand spectrum. The long-awaited release of spectrum holds great potential to boost the telecommunications sector to the benefit of all South Africans.

“All our people deserve the benefit of a modern and connected life, and we look forward to studying the policy and directive, as we collaborate to achieve this critical goal.”

Fair and balanced

Spectrum remains a valuable asset for local mobile operators, so the minister’s announcement has sparked some positive vibe in the various telco boardrooms.

Under-pressure Cell C sees a glimmer of hope. SA’s third biggest operator says it is studying the new directive, but “at first glance – the directive appears fair and well-thought out, balancing the needs of the incumbent operators as well as smaller and new players”.

A Cell C spokesperson says: “We believe that if properly implemented, it will level the playing field and drive more effective competition. We are particularly pleased by the emphasis the minister has placed on the WOAN, as Cell C has long been an advocate of the establishment of an open access model.”

Telecoms analyst Dobek Pater at Africa Analysis says it’s not surprising government wants to create a WOAN.

He believes it has been the government’s intention for the past several years. “I don’t think it would completely abandon the idea. However, the idea of the WOAN has evolved and is not as rigid as previously. Nonetheless, important questions still remain.”

He explains: “I suspect ICASA will take its cues from the CSIR report regarding the high-demand spectrum necessary for a WOAN. Whatever is left, it will then see how best to structure a number of spectrum blocks to assign to other operators. This may be (probably will be) done in the form of an auction.”

The idea of a WOAN was proposed as part of the National Integrated ICT Policy White Paper, published in 2016. It calls for a shake-up of the previous policy framework for spectrum allocation in favour of an "open access regime", with the WOAN outlined as a "public-private sector-owned and -managed consortium".

There have been countless calls to government to provide clarity and fast-track spectrum allocation for the telcos.

As a result, the department commissioned the CSIR to conduct a study to determine the amount of spectrum needed for WOAN to meet the national objectives and targets of broadband delivery.

The CSIR study, approved by Cabinet, confirms that a portion of the radio frequency spectrum can be licensed to both WOAN and the industry.

WOAN worries

Vodacom, which leads the local operators, did not divulge much, except to say it “notes the publication last week of the policy on high-demand spectrum and policy direction on the licensing of a wireless open access network. We are currently reviewing the document and will comment in due course.”

Telkom hadn’t responded by the time of publication.

Charley Lewis, independent analyst and researcher, says it is unclear why there was such a delay in finalising the policy direction, given that there is little substantive divergence from the draft policy direction released by the minister’s predecessor nearly a year ago.

“I remain concerned at the continued primary focus on the WOAN. The WOAN remains an untried experiment, contrary to the recommendations of government’s own commissioned research into its viability.

“It is hard to envisage see a successful consortium able to meet the complex set of qualifying criteria specified in the Gazette. The resultant environment will create a complex set of regulatory challenges for ICASA to manage.”

Further, Lewis adds: “I am concerned that making the award of spectrum contingent on the licensing of the WOAN can only serve to delay the assignment of spectrum even further.”

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