South Africa’s long-awaited policy on high demand spectrum was gazetted by Communications and Digital Technology Minister Stella Ndabeni Abrahams on Friday.

5G on hold for now, but SA finally set to get high demand spectrum

The policy comes at a time when the country is grappling with the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and the digital infrastructure necessary to catch up with its peers and compete more effectively in the emerging digital economy. It lays out the guidelines for the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) to allocate network capacity to South Africa’s telecoms service providers and other information communication and technology (ICT) players.

The policy also creates a wireless open-access network (WOAN), which will house spectrum and lease to industry players such as mobile network operators, broadcasters and internet service providers. The blueprint comes after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced in his recent State of the
Nation Address that Ndabeni-Abrahams would issue a policy direction to Icasa for the licensing of the high-demand radio frequency spectrum.

The new policy follows the recommendations of a study conducted by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, which concluded that the bulk of available high demand spectrum should be allocated to the WOAN, with the remainder being auctioned to electronic communication network licencees. This, according to the Minister, is to “ensure the viability and sustainability” of the open-access network.

The study concluded that the following spectrum combinations should be considered as the minimum for the envisaged WOAN:

  • 2×25 MHz of the 800 HMz band (Band 20)
  • 2×20 MHz of the 2600 MHz FDD (frequency division duplex) band (Band 7)
  • 25 MHz of 2600 MHz TDD (time division duplex) (Band 38)

According to the Minister, the policy’s objectives include protecting “the WOAN’s sustainability and future capability, promoting universal provision of electronic communication network services and connectivity for all, [to ensure] broadband coverage in rural and underserved areas.”

Other objectives include encouraging investment, including investment in strategic infrastructure, with certainty and predictability for investors in the communications sectors. The government also aims to promote competition in the ICT sector, with emphasis on service-based competition through the WOAN. The policy also calls for an environment that gives open, fair and non-discriminatory access to communication networks and services, as well as the empowering of historically disadvantaged South Africans, such as youth, women, and persons with disabilities. It further seeks to promote the interests of consumers in matters such as the price, quality, and variety of electronic communications, the development
of small and medium business, and cooperatives.

“The Minister recognises that there are over 400 players that hold electronic communication network service licences but cannot access spectrum due to its scarcity. This has an adverse effect (on) competition, contributes to the high costs to communicate, and serves as a brier to entry for new entrants and SMMEs,” the gazette reads.

“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.”

The document says the deployment of a WOAN will encourage licensees to work together where it is practicable, and this collaboration means the spectrum will be used more effectively. High demand spectrum will be assigned to the envisaged WOAN, and the remaining bit can go to the service licensees. The processes must commence simultaneously. But because some incumbent operators already have been assigned high demand spectrum and the wholesale open-access imposed on the WOAN, Icasa has been directed to consider that on 700MHz, 800 MHz and 2600 MHz, preferential treatment is given to the WOAN.

Spectrum not reserved for WOAN must ensure a number of policy objectives including the leasing of electronic communication facilities and networks and providing wholesale capacity to other licensees.
“The Authority must perform strict regulatory oversight to ensure compliance with this network and facilities leasing requirement,” the gazette reads.

“The policy objectives [must ensure] universal access and universal service obligations to ensure high-quality network availability in rural and underserviced areas. The obligations must be complied with [in these areas] before the assigned spectrum may be used in other areas, bearing in mind practicalities such as the unsuitability of certain high band spectrum
for rural areas.”

Also, no single entity may control the spectrum, and South Africa’s empowerment laws will have to be complied with. Given its centrality to the allocation of high demand spectrum in terms of the new policy, the structure, ownership, and operation of the WOAN have been given special attention.

In this regard, the gazette stipulates that:

  • The WOAN must be a consortium 70% owned by South Africans who participate voluntarily
  • It must include a diversity of ownership to ensure meaningful participation of all entities involved and must prevent monopolistic behaviour
  • It must include effective participation by historically disadvantaged groups
  • It may include public entities as shareholders, but may not be a public entity (state-owned enterprise) as defined in the Public Finance Management Act

Crucially, the policy delays licensing of 5G to licencees until Icasa has conducted a study on 5G spectrum requirements.
“The Authority is directed to investigate and report to the Minister on the spectrum requirements of 5G in bands lower than 6 GHz and the millimetre wave bands currently under study at the 2019 World Radio Communication Conference (WRC-19). The report should be provided to the Minister within six months after the WRC-19.

The investigation should cover the affected bands, the required ecosystem to support 5G in these bands, and implications of the licensing of these bands on competition and the current structure of the mobile market.”
The Minister will issue a separate policy on 5G candidate bands once Icasa has handed over the proposed report.

South Africa needs 5G which uses new higher radio frequencies to transmit data that is less cluttered and carries information much faster. It will also enable the adoption of 4IR technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing, and the Internet of Things (IoT).

Amy Musgrave