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SA’s spectrum-sharing provisions vague, say industry players

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While SA’s regulatory framework makes provision for spectrum-sharing, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) is yet to receive applications to share this limited resource.

This is one of the findings of the study conducted by Policy Impact Partners (PIP), in association with the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance, to uncover how spectrum-sharing can help bring many more rural communities online.

In July, communications and digital technologies minister Stella 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.

On Friday, stakeholders from private and public sector, SME and non-profit organisations, industry watchers and analysts, to name but a few, gathered in Johannesburg to unpack the outcomes of the report as well as the potential for spectrum-sharing in the country.

In the case of SA, the report found key stakeholders argue the current provision for spectrum-sharing is too vague and allows ICASA to use arbitrary criteria.

As a result: “They [stakeholders] would like to see a standalone spectrum-sharing regulation that clearly sets out the criteria for approval of spectrum-sharing, the terms and conditions and fees, if any.”  

Solving connectivity issues

Spectrum-sharing proposes efficient use of spectrum in order to help countries pursue their strategic objectives to improve broadband connectivity and increase digital inclusion.

Furthermore, it is envisioned that spectrum-sharing could potentially help governments ensure no citizen is left behind in the digital age, and that access to connectivity and the Internet is not a luxury, but a basic service accessible to all.

PIP conducted in-depth research in Colombia, Malaysia and SA to identify opportunities for spectrum-sharing in a range of different frequency bands, including those identified for international mobile telecommunications (IMT), which are served by a large and competitive LTE device market.

According to PIP, these three countries, which are large and populous economies in very different regions of the world, were selected following a proof of concept analysis undertaken by PIP in December 2018, which highlighted the potential for spectrum-sharing in each market.

During the third quarter of this year, PIP engaged with government and industry stakeholders in these three countries to identify whether they could harness spectrum-sharing to increase access to broadband in line with their policy objectives and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Under South African regulations, spectrum-sharing can be initiated by ICASA or by two or more licensees. All radio frequency spectrum-sharing agreements are subject to approval by ICASA, and to a non-discriminatory approach.

Explaining why some South African industry players have not applied to share spectrum, Mortimer Hope, associate director and Africa lead at PIP, said the respondents pointed to uncertainty as one of the reasons for being apprehensive.

“ICASA has a habit…when there is an application for something that is not that new, instead of making a decision, they go out to the public and invite everyone to comment, and then they make up a process as they go along. You’re not sure what ICASA is going to do and no one was willing to be the guinea pig.”

Trial and error

To determine the effectiveness of spectrum-sharing in SA, Hope says the PIP research suggests one or more technology trials to raise awareness of the new forms of spectrum-sharing.

“We’d need to determine the scope, what needs to be tested and then apply to ICASA.”

The report found key industry and policy stakeholders have a high level of interest in the concept of spectrum-sharing and are willing to participate in or support a technology trial. 

It states: “Such trials would provide stakeholders with insights into the potential of tiered models for spectrum-sharing and any related technological and regulatory issues that might arise. Within Colombia, Malaysia, South Africa and other countries, technology trials would also help to raise awareness of the potential of new forms of spectrum-sharing.

“The optimum way to implement technology trials would be through partnerships between the relevant industry players, authorised by the spectrum authorities and, in some cases, with the support of an independent entity, such as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa, which has already conducted a broadband gap analysis and participated in TVWS [TV white space] spectrum-sharing trials.”

In regards to the bands that can be used for a technology trial, it will depend on the licensing process, the report highlights.

“In SA, parts of the 2.3GHz, 2.6GHz and 3.5GHz bands have been assigned to mobile operators. The government looks set to license several IMT spectrum bands to the WOAN and other licensees during Q2 2020. This could involve auctions of frequencies in the 700MHz, 800MHz, 2.3GHz, 2.6GHz and 3.5GHz bands. However, if necessary, the 900MHz and 1800MHz bands could be employed for a near-term spectrum-sharing technology trial in South Africa.

“The best way to trial and ultimately implement spectrum-sharing will vary country by country, depending on how the specific frequency band is being used today, the regulatory framework, existing authorisations and potential partnership opportunities,” the report concludes. 

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