Spectrum policy direction coming 'soon'

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Last year, ICASA confirmed plans to license high-demand radio frequency spectrum by the end of March 2019.
Last year, ICASA confirmed plans to license high-demand radio frequency spectrum by the end of March 2019.

The Department of Communications (DOC) is still in consultations regarding the way forward for the licensing of the high-demand radio frequency spectrum.

This information came to light in communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams's response to a Parliamentary question posed by Marian Shinn, Democratic Alliance MP and telecoms and postal services shadow minister.

Specifically, Ndabeni-Abrahams notes the DOC intends to publish the policy directive for high-demand spectrum upon conclusion of the consultations with industry players.

It is anticipated the consultations will be finalised in the first quarter of 2019/2020, reads the communications minister's reply.

Spectrum push

Mobile operators have for years been pleading for more spectrum in order to provide faster and more widespread high-speed data services.

To address this as well as promote investment in the country's economy, president Cyril Ramaphosa, last September, promised swift action regarding spectrum allocation when he detailed government's economic stimulus and recovery plan.

Ramaphosa used this year's State of the Nation Address (SONA) to tell the nation that Ndabeni-Abrahams would "shortly be issuing policy direction" to the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) for the licensing of spectrum.

Furthermore, finance minister Tito Mboweni, in his budget speech, also indicated plans to "work relentlessly" with Ndabeni-Abrahams to ensure the issue is resolved.

Referencing Ramaphosa and Mboweni's comments, Ndabeni-Abrahams states: "The release of high-demand spectrum is a matter of high priority as indicated by the president during the SONA and subsequently emphasised by the minister of finance in his budget speech.

"We recognise that this is a matter that has economy-wide implications. We are currently engaged in intense consultations with industry players to ensure all considerations are taken into account."

Drawn-out consultations

Shinn says she is disappointed the consultation process is still ongoing.

The DA MP points out that in SONA, the president said the allocation of high-demand spectrum was urgent and the policy directive would be issued very soon.

"The fact that two months later nothing has materialised is ominous. It indicates there is still a dispute about the structure of the auction that most assume will be the allocation model.

"If the lion's share of the high-demand spectrum is reserved for a consortium of connected cronies, as in the WOAN [wholesale open access network] model that threatened the infrastructure investments of the mobile network operators, then we are in for a protracted legal wrangle that the country can ill afford.

"It is also odd that as president Ramaphosa is more ICT-savvy than his predecessor and the former minister of telecommunications and postal services, the issue would have progressed rapidly since the court action between the former minister and ICASA was withdrawn last September.

"That this hasn't happened seems to indicate the political faction with the ANC that sought to enrich itself via the WOAN is gaining the upper hand. If this is so, the massive economic benefits of unleashing high-demand spectrum will not happen for years as there will be legal challenges all the way to the Constitutional Court."

Based on the minister's reply, Shinn is doubtful SA is any closer to getting clarity on a possible spectrum auction.

According to Shinn, ICASA's original invitation to apply was on the right track, noting it just needs to be revised to make some of the spectrum allocation affordable to smaller players.

"If the policy directive is released only by June, as minister Ndabeni-Abrahams indicates - and there is no legal challenge - it will still take years to design the auction structure and process, and then conduct it. We'll be treading water, spectrum wise, for a long time."

Communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.
Communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.

The spectrum tussle to date:

  • 15 July 2016, ICASA invited telecoms operators to apply for radio frequency spectrum in the 700MHz, 800MHz and 2.6GHz bands.

Former Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS) minister Siyabonga Cwele challenged the licensing process, saying ICASA should have waited until the department had finalised its Integrated ICT Policy White Paper before inviting operators to bid for spectrum.

  • 10 August 2016, Cwele filed papers in the Pretoria High Court in an attempt to stop the regulator's plans to hold a spectrum auction for telecoms operators.
  • 30 September 2016, the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria ruled that ICASA is prevented from implementing the licensing steps and processes referred to in an ITA issued in July.
  • 3 October 2016, ICASA announced it accepts the High Court judgement.
  • 20 February 2017, ICASA revealed it has pushed back its planned radio frequency spectrum auction process, with no future date set.
  • 26 September 2018, the DTPS and ICASA agreed to settle a 2016 court challenge, which had effectively kept any assignment of spectrum on hold for over two years.
  • 12 October 2018, ICASA said it planned to license high-demand radio frequency spectrum by the end of March 2019 but no official information has yet been released about how and when the spectrum will become available.
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