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ICASA’s change of direction on WOAN baffles Right2Know

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Advocacy group Right2Know (R2K) says it is concerned about the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa’s (ICASA’s) change of direction regarding the planned wholesale open-access network (WOAN).

R2K was responding to ICASA’s announcement last week that it is reviewing the timelines relating to the licensing of the WOAN.

The regulator said it had resolved not to publish the envisaged WOAN consultation document on 19 November as previously communicated.

In the intervening period, the authority will engage other international jurisdictions to draw lessons from their experiences on the licensing of a typical WOAN.

R2K says whereas ICASA had previously committed to engaging in public consultation regarding the allocation of spectrum to the WOAN, it now claims to prefer to “engage other international jurisdictions” first.

“Spectrum is a public good and the neoliberal model of auctioning blocks of it to the highest bidders leads to contradictory outcomes where large corporations hoard as much as they can in order to deny access to competitors,” says the advocacy group.

“While there may be a shortage of spectrum in urban areas during certain hours, over the country as a whole, most spectrum remains unused,” it adds.

R2K is of the view that the WOAN is a progressive idea to address this by restructuring the market, which it supports.

“In particular, it holds the potential for creating access to spectrum by community networks, and it envisages a boom in mobile virtual network operators, smaller businesses which resell cellular network access.

“We fear this policy arena has been affected by factional conflict within the ruling party. De-prioritising the WOAN could reflect greater neoliberal influence. We call for ICASA to resume its public consultation on the issue.”

The WOAN will operate as a single network, built via a consortium, which will sell high-demand spectrum to telecoms operators on a wholesale basis.

Government believes the WOAN will enable more competition in the telecoms market that will result in data prices coming down.

ICASA has set aside radio frequency spectrum within the 700MHz, 2 600MHz and 3 500MHz spectrum bands for the WOAN.

The WOAN invitation to apply provides for a radio frequency spectrum licence to be issued for the WOAN, which will be valid for a period of 20 years, renewable annually on payment of a prescribed licence fee.

Applicants for the WOAN licence must be at least 70% owned by South African citizens and at least 50% black-owned. It must also be at least 20% owned by black women.

ICASA has also imposed empowerment obligations on successful spectrum bidders, requiring them to support the WOAN through procuring, collectively, at least 30% of the WOAN’s national capacity on a proportional basis.

However, the concept of the WOAN has been met with some scepticism after failing to bear fruit in some countries where it has been implemented.

Industry bodies like the GSM Association have also cautioned about the implementation of WOAN models, noting they do not deliver on promises to provide better coverage, more competition, or lower prices for consumers, with most failing to get off the ground.

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