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ICASA, Black IT Forum trade blows over TV white spaces

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Telecommunications regulator the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) has reacted strongly to allegations that it is blocking TV white space (TVWS) technology rollout in the country.

TVWS technology will provide much-needed affordable broadband connectivity to unserved and underserved communities.

Yesterday, lobby group the Black IT Forum (BITF) issued a statement saying it has resolved to launch an urgent legal process in court to challenge ICASA’s decision to delay commencement of commercial TVWS.

It also threatened to “expose any individual at ICASA and their external handlers that are using public resources to sabotage progressive government programmes meant to save lives during the COVID-19 disaster period and assist rural and township economy recovery beyond the COVID-19 period”.

However, the regulator has rubbished the claims, saying it is playing a proactive role in the deployment of TVWS technology in the country.

Television white spaces refer to unused frequencies in the wireless spectrum between TV broadcasts that can be utilised to provide broadband. This will increase once SA finally migrates from analogue to digital terrestrial television.

BITF is a non-profit organisation which represents previously disadvantage individuals within the ICT sector.

The organisation has substantial wireless Internet service providers as members, whom it says are frustrated by ICASA’s decision on TVWS commercial deployment in SA.

Killing local innovations

In its statement, the lobby group says: “The unnecessary delays by ICASA in announcing the commencement of commercial TVWS usage in the country is tantamount to killing of indigenous, locally-developed world-class innovation and technologies that have huge potential to spearhead the fourth industrial revolution in South Africa led by ICT SMMEs.”

It points out that president Cyril Ramaphosa, in his recent communique, has made it clear that spectrum should be urgently made available to enable the rollout of broadband network infrastructure to support the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, and also to serve as a catalyst in reviving the ailing economy and creation of employment opportunities.

The BITF asks why ICASA seems to be sabotaging the president’s efforts. “Sadly, the commencement of commercial TVWS has once again been delayed for another nine months because ICASA is saying they want to go through a tendering process to get a service provider that will perform the certification of secondary geolocation spectrum database providers.

“Surprisingly, this is exactly the job description which ICASA is supposed to be doing themselves. Why then [is it] wasting taxpayers’ money on a tendering process to support delay tactics? Should lack of necessary skill sets in new digital technologies such as TVWS be one of the chief reasons as recently highlighted by minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams when questioning the capability of proposed new ICASA councillors?”

In addition, the lobby group charges that the case of several COVID-19 TVWS applications submitted by ICT SMMEs that were dubiously rejected by ICASA is still unresolved.

“This dark cloud of uncertainty and contradictions created by ICASA brings the industry to a halt as no financial investments can be invested in full commercial deployment.”

However, it says it is encouraging that the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has demonstrated its willingness to support and empower black-owned ICT SMMEs with its geolocation spectrum database (GLSD) technology during the COVID-19 period.

It says the CSIR database technology is world-class as it was certified by the Office of Communications of the UK since 2016 to provide TVWS services in the UK market.

“It is sad and puzzling that our own home-grown CSIR database technologies are being shown road blocks by ICASA when it comes to be used to empower ICT SMMEs to provide affordable commercial broadband services in South Africa.

“Without a doubt, the delay by ICASA is meant to allow foreign multinationals sufficient time to catch-up and negate our proud South African technological lead and advantage developed using our hard-earned taxes. This dangerous path taken by ICASA has a potential to keep ICT SMMEs, our country and the African continent underdeveloped for years to come, a true manifestation of Frantz Fanon books,” the BITF says.

Taking a proactive approach

However, ICASA spokesperson Paseka Maleka told ITWeb via e-mail that there have not been any delays in this process.

According to Maleka, ICASA’s annual performance plan for the 2020/21 FY envisions this process being completed by the end of this financial year, ending 31 March 2021.

He notes the regulator has been proactive in making this technology available, even though the regulatory framework has not yet been finalised.

“A good example of this is ICASA allowing the use of the TVWS technology during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Maleka says.

He points out that ICASA authorised the implementation of TVWS technology in terms of the ICT COVID-19 National Disaster Regulations published on 6 April.

“This authorisation is temporary and would be revoked within three months of the termination of the National State of Disaster.

“In this regard, the regulator had authorised the use of the CSIR’s secondary GLSD, which links the TVWS devices with the primary geolocation database intelligently without causing interference to television services during the COVID-19 pandemic period.

“It was never contemplated that the authorisation granted to the CSIR would extend beyond the period contemplated in terms of the ICT COVID-19 regulations,” Maleka says.

‘Speedy implementation’

He adds that on 5 June, the authority published a framework to qualify to operate the secondary GSDL for the purposes of providing for a qualification framework for interested entities to operate as secondary GLSD service providers.

However, he says the reason the regulations are not yet in force is due to the fact that the authority has not qualified any secondary GLSD providers.

In order to ensure the qualification process is possible, the authority intends appointing a service provider for this purpose, Malaka says, adding that once the process of appointing a service provider is finalised, ICASA will publish the commencement date through a notice in the Government Gazette.

He points out it is the authority’s intention to publish the commencement date within this financial year.

“It is therefore disingenuous to suggest ICASA is delaying the rollout of TVWS technologies without a clearer understanding of the regulatory environment.

“If anything, ICASA has actively pursued and promoted this technology. It is important to note ICASA is required to operate within the confines of the applicable legislative framework and has embarked on a fair and transparent process for purposes of the speedy implementation of TVWS technologies,” Maleka concludes.

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