ICT SMMEs laud ‘progressive’ spectrum pathway

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Government has finally published the framework for spectrum allocation.
Government has finally published the framework for spectrum allocation.

The release of the long-awaited pathway for the allocation of spectrum not only pushes for an “open and diversified telecoms economy in SA”, but represents an enormous victory for small business in the ICT sector.

This is the collective message shared by the ICT SMME Chamber, Black IT Forum and Progressive Blacks in ICT, after government published the policy direction for the licensing of high-demand spectrum.

On Friday, communications and digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams issued the spectrum policy that paves a way for licensing the wholesale open access network (WOAN).

In a statement, the organisations comment: “We say bravo to minister Ndabeni-Abrahams, the deputy minister Pinky Kekana, and their teams at the Department of Communications and Digital Technology for hearing the small business cry for economic inclusion.

“We take the opportunity to emphasise that participation of black-owned women and youth enterprises will enhance inclusivity and the spirit of ICTs for all.”

End of the long wait

Since last year, the administration, including president Cyril Ramaphosa, has made numerous promises aimed at resolving the drawn-out issue of licensing high-demand radio frequency spectrum.

Last October, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) also confirmed plans to license spectrum by the end of March 2019 but that deadline came and passed.

Mobile operators have been waiting for years for allocation of 4G spectrum in order to provide faster and more widespread high-speed data services.

The last big set of spectrum issued was in the 2.1GHz band, which helped the operators in their 3G network deployment. Vodacom and MTN were allocated such spectrum, respectively, in 2004 and 2005, while Cell C received such spectrum in 2011.

Most recently, small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) also ramped-up calls for spectrum to be set aside for them as well as co-operatives, especially those with black people, women, youth and those living with disabilities.

At the heart of their displeasure is the lack of inclusion of black-owned SMMEs by the ICT sector.

In the policy, Ndabeni-Abrahams appears to identify the plight of ICT small businesses, saying: “She recognises that there are over 400 players that hold electronic communications network service licences but cannot access spectrum, due to its scarcity.

“This has an adverse effect on competition, contributes to the high cost to communicate and serves as a barrier to entry for new entrants and SMMEs. Government is committed to maximising the socio-economic benefits derived from the use of the spectrum and recognises that a shared approach to spectrum use is necessary.”

Muzi Makhaye, chairman of the ICT SMME Chamber.
Muzi Makhaye, chairman of the ICT SMME Chamber.

WOAN aspirations

The ICT SMME Chamber, chaired by Muzi Makhaye, has made no secretof its desire to see the creation of a WOAN, as it believes it to be the viable option for creating new business opportunities for ICT SMMEs, as well as new entrants to the sector.

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”.   

Last year, Ndabeni-Abrahams’ department engaged the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to conduct a study to determine the amount of spectrum needed for WOAN.

The CSIR provided recommendations on the high-demand spectrum required by the WOAN to ensure its viability and sustainability on the basis of a 20% market share, and access to high-demand spectrum for other electronic communications licensees. 

In Friday’s spectrum allocation framework, Ndabeni-Abrahams says: “The deployment of a WOAN will encourage licensees to work together as far as it is practicable. Government fully supports a WOAN as a means to meet the public policy objectives.

“High-demand spectrum maybe assigned to a WOAN and the remaining high-demand spectrum maybe assigned to other electronic communications network service licensees, which spectrum assignment processes must commence simultaneously.”

She adds: “ICASA must consider that the WOAN should provide wholesale open access to its electronic communications networks and facilities, and provide wholesale capacity, upon request, to any other person licensed in terms of the Electronic Communications Act and persons providing services pursuant to a licence exemption, on terms that are effective, transparent and non-discriminatory.” 

The ICT SMME Chamber claims part of the victory for securing the establishment of a WOAN, according to Makhaye. “That this success came against the backdrop of some ruthless detractors who employed scaremongering tactics, disparaging language and isolationist behaviour at every given time makes this victory even sweeter for small business.”

In their joint statement, the SMME reps state: “As SMMEs, we collectively salute the commander of 4IR [the fourth industrial revolution], minister Ndabeni-Abrahams, for paving a way to the establishment of the WOAN. We simultaneously extend the hand of friendship to big business as much as we start focusing our attention to ICASA where next our battle awaits.”

Communications and digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.
Communications and digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.

Safeguarding

Although it continues to study the policy document published on Friday, the chamber bills it as “a progressive document”.

Makhaye highlights: “Even at this early stage, a sobering fact is emerging clearly: the SMME war for ICT’s transformation through economic inclusion is still far from over. ICASA represents our next immediate hurdle and could trip and scatter our gains as set out in the gazetted policy and directive.

“The posture of the spectrum policy may help galvanise the industry players to working together faster to achieve common objectives. We hope such sanity prevails.

“There is too much proverbial blood on the carpet already; time for posturing is over. SMMEs pledge to play their constructive role alongside willing partners with practical suggestions and mechanisms to help avert the looming economic disaster in the country.”

Furthermore, the ICT SMME Chamber notes it will seek further clarity on the language used in the policy document, urging small business not to drop its guard.

“So far, the areas of concern that stand out for the chamber have to do with the text, the language that leaves loopholes in the policy, which the incumbents will exploit. We shall be seeking clarity on the language and those bothersome clauses we have identified.

“The policy had to be precise and explicit in certain areas. We shall steadfastly guard against the policy and policy direction opening these opportunities for SMMEs only for regulations to snatch them away tomorrow on some flimsy technicalities,” it concludes.

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