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ICASA eyes March 2022 for expedited spectrum licensing

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Telecoms regulator the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) has set a March 2022 deadline for the licensing of the International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) spectrum, also known as high-demand spectrum, and the wholesale open access network (WOAN).

ICASA today advised stakeholders of the truncated timetable and roadmap for the expedited licensing of the much-needed spectrum, which has been delayed for years.

According to the regulator, this roadmap follows the consent order granted by the North Gauteng High Court on 15 September, which ended the litigation instituted against the authority by Telkom and Etv.

The telecoms regulator was set to auction the long-awaited high-demand spectrum by 31 March this year.

However, the process came to a halt after Telkom filed its legal dispute, taking issue with the way the auction is structured, which it said will entrench the dominance of its rivals MTN and Vodacom.

Broadcaster Etv joined Telkom in its legal bid. Its argument was centred on ICASA’s plan to auction spectrum in the 700MHz and 800MHz frequency bands, where spectrum is still being used by TV broadcasters.

MTN also dragged ICASA to the North Gauteng High Court in January, challenging the way in which the regulator intends to license the 3.5GHz spectrum, which it said would result in tier one operators being side-lined in the auction.

Transparent consultative process

In its statement today, ICASA says the court on 15 September granted an order to review and set aside the authority’s decision to publish the invitations to apply (ITA) for both the high-demand spectrum and WOAN.

The court further directed that the matter be referred to the authority for reconsideration, says the regulator.

“In framing the truncated timetable and roadmap, the authority was mindful of the need for the expedited licensing process to be completed with exigency, whilst adhering to a comprehensive and transparent consultative process,” says ICASA chairperson Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng.

He notes the authority is embarking on a process to consult stakeholders on key aspects pertaining to the expedited licensing process for high-demand spectrum and the WOAN, including the implications of the release of high-demand spectrum (and licensing of the WOAN) on competition in the market, the radio frequency bands to be licensed, in view of the yet to be completed digital migration process, and the nature and extent of obligations to be imposed, etc.

Pursuant to the consultation process, the regulator says it may amend and/or re-issue the ITAs with a view to conducting an auction by the end of the current financial year.

Modimoeng expresses his gratitude to the parties to the litigation for not opposing the authority’s consent order, thus enabling the authority to embark on this revised process, with a view to finally get the spectrum licensed on a long-term basis and in line with best regulatory practice.

“We are, indeed, grateful to everyone who participated in bringing the matter to finality. All things being equal, we envisage to license the IMT spectrum no later than end of March 2022,” says Modimoeng.

The chairperson further says ICASA remains resolute in ensuring it discharges its constitutional mandate in a fair, open and transparent manner, and for the benefit of all South Africans.

“We would like to urge all interested stakeholders to participate fully in this consultative engagement and to engage openly and robustly to ensure no further impediments are placed in the way of the finalisation of this critical economic intervention,” states the chairperson.

ICASA chairperson Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng.
ICASA chairperson Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng.

Modimoeng makes an appeal to stakeholders to accept the published timetable / schedule for both licensing processes, to avoid unduly delaying the release of this much-needed economic stimulus input.

The telecoms industry has been waiting with bated breath for the release of spectrum since president Cyril Ramaphosa promised swift action in regards to allocation of high-demand radio spectrum during the 2018 State of the Nation Address.

South Africa’s allocation of high-demand spectrum has been up in the air for a number of years, with the last significant spectrum awarded 16 years ago. The last big set of spectrum issued was in the 2.1GHz band, which helped the operators in their 3G network deployment.

For the mobile operators, spectrum allocation will help provide faster and more widespread high-speed data services. It’s expected that the freed-up spectrum will reduce the cost of data and increase access to the internet.

Additionally, for government, a spectrum auction means a boost to the fiscus.

The authority has outlined the truncated timetable and milestones for the process as set out below:

Schedule for the expedited licensing of IMT spectrum:

Schedule for expedited licensing of the WOAN: 

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