Govt insists new spectrum model is best for SA

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DTPS director-general Robert Nkuna [Photo source: ITU]
DTPS director-general Robert Nkuna [Photo source: ITU]

Government's proposed wholesale open access network (WOAN) is about the sharing of spectrum by industry, said Robert Nkuna, director-general in the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS).

Nkuna was speaking in Sandton yesterday at an engagement session organised by Citigroup. He was part of the DTPS delegation discussing the Cabinet-approved Electronic Communications Act (ECA) Amendment Bill.

The department's delegation was there to unpack some of the provisions contained in the Bill, such as the rapid deployment of electronic communications facilities, SA Connect, as well as the controversial WOAN - which has caused widespread panic across the industry as it would shake up the previous policy framework for spectrum allocation in favour of an 'open access regime'.

The WOAN would encourage a sharing model for spectrum allocation as opposed to auctioning the resource to the highest bidder, says the department DG.

According to the DG, the DTPS has noticed the WOAN matter has dominated public discussion since the Bill was published; adding the name attached to the government-backed method of intervention on the issue of spectrum should not be the priority.

Most of the time people get bogged down by the name and compare it with what other countries have done, because it has been called the same thing, said Nkuna.

"I do not worry too much on what we are going to call it, but rather what it is. The wholesale open access network is not a state-owned company; government has no intention to create this entity.

"What it means is that the industry will have to sit down and design this network however they want to. The emphasis is on sharing the scarce resources at our disposal - the radio frequency spectrum resources."

He continued: "Should it happen that government entities like the IDC, for example, want to invest in this - they will do that based on simple commercial reasoning and rationale. They will not be [getting involved] because government wants to operate the wholesale open access network."

Shaping WOAN

The proposal of a wireless open access network model for allocating spectrum was put forward in the National Integrated ICT Policy White Paper, which was facilitated by the DTPS.

The white paper was finalised and published in September 2016, and is supposed to replace the separate white papers on telecommunication (1996) and postal services (1998). The ECA Amendment Bill, published on 17 November, aims to give effect to the ICT Policy, according to DTPS.

While public and industry were initially given 30 calendar days to comment on the Bill, the telecoms ministry last week extended the period for public comments to 31 January 2018.

For the first time, government will also host public hearings to discuss the Bill, on 1 and 2 February 2018, said the DG. This will give all industry players who will make submissions a chance to interact with the DTPS in public to explain their issues and concerns, he noted.

According to Nkuna, an OECD document on wireless networks shows "practically everyone on earth is grappling with the issue of spectrum".

"If this issue was closed and dusted... everyone was going to say the spectrum issue has been resolved. That is not the case, we [must] determine how best we can mine and harness this scarce resource.

"To the best of what we know this issue is everywhere;, every country is grappling with the same issue. The models will not be the same because each and every country has to consider its own peculiar realities in its approach. What we have done in SA is that we have taken a decision that we are going ahead with this arrangement - [it's] safe to say that this is not going to be a state-owned company."

Nkuna also pointed out the department has undertaken a study to determine the requirements of a WOAN if it was created to build nationwide infrastructure, and that process is nearing completion. "In our engagement with industry we have explored areas where we can meet each other halfway."

Industry buy-in

Commenting on the industry's interest for the government-proposed model, the DG could not provide a definitive answer.

He said there are those who will feel indifferent to the approach, as well as those who are giving it a "big yes".

"It is not for us to indicate which entities want to invest in the wholesale open access network - those entities will speak for themselves as time progresses. But, based on what we hear from our own engagement with industry, there are quite a significant number of entities of different sizes that want to be involved in the wholesale open access network."

"We are going all out to engage with industry," he added.

Tight deadlines

Nkuna said it is the desire of the department to finalise the legislative process without delay.

"Of course, during this time, we don't want to compromise consultation - we have to consult sufficiently even when we go to Parliament."

He continued: "We want to conclude the legislative process by the end of the current financial year so that all the licensing and directions can be issued.

"We have also been considering exploring whether the current law does allow us to address some of the issues and ease pressure on industry, so that while working on this medium-term to long-term vision - if there are things we can do with the current legislative environment - we can explore that."

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