The radio spectrum conundrum

February 25th, 2019, Published in Articles: EngineerIT

Are you confused about where South Africa stands with access to affordable broadband and allocation of radio frequency spectrum? Not surprising: we have gone a full circle in the space of two years but still do not have radio spectrum allocated to enable the mobile operators and other entities to roll out more affordable broadband services.

It started in 2017 with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) announcing the auction of spectrum. The then Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS) ruled that ICASA was out of line with its policy and told ICASA to withdraw the auction offer. When ICASA refused, the DTPS ran to the courts to stop ICASA from going ahead with the auction. Then came the famous white paper and the infamous wholesale open access network (WOAN), a concept that had not worked anywhere in the world. The white paper included such bizarre proposals as to recall current frequency allocations, to start a new frequency regulatory body under the direction of the minister to manage spectrum, diluting ICASA to just a licensing body. Needless to say, industry did not buy into any of this.

Just before Christmas 2017, determined to force its way, the DTPS published the ECA Amendment Bill. Industry objected to the short notice closing date for comment and input, accusing the DTPS of slipping the amendment bill in during the Christmas holiday period. The deadline was extended to 31 January 2018. Needless to say, the reaction to the amendment bill was overwhelmingly negative. Then, an industry workshop followed and ultimately the DTPS agreed to reach a compromise position which would result in a hybrid model, and the draft ECA Amendment Bill would be redrafted and resubmitted to parliament later that year, which it was. Much was written about it and legal experts predicted that, should the bill pass through parliament, some major legal action would follow.

In a cabinet reshuffle President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the ministries of Telecommunications and Postal Services, and Communications would be merged into one ministry. Stella Tembisa Ndabeni-Abrahams was the obvious choice of minister as she had been the Deputy Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services since 31 March 2017. She also served over five years as Deputy Minister of Communications.

President Ramaphosa also instructed the new minister to get on with making spectrum available on an urgent basis. Things started to happen. The DTPS and ICASA agreed to settle their differences out of court. The new minister quietly withdrew the amended ECA Amendment Bill from the roll and is now no more (well, for the time being).

Then came the 2019 State of the Nation Address (2SONA), when President Ramaphosa became the first South African president to speak so much about technology during a SONA. He said “as we grapple with the challenges of the past, and as we deepen our efforts to overcome the grave injustices of centuries, it is essential that we do so with our eyes firmly fixed on the future. Revolutionary advances in technology are reshaping the way our people work and live. They are transforming the way people relate to each other, the way societies function and the way they are governed.” Talking about South Africa’s technological future he again reiterated that spectrum must be released urgently.

Then, in the annual budget speech the Minister of Finance, Tito Mboweni, emphasised the call for the fast release of spectrum. While sharply focussing on his colleague Stella Tembisa Ndabeni-Abrahams, he said the Minister of Communications will make an announcement about spectrum in the next few weeks. He also said that he made an allocation in the budget to capacitate ICASA to manage the radio frequency spectrum and be in a better position to fulfil its role as regulator.

So, we have gone a compete circle. Back to one minister, soon to one Department of Communication and one spectrum management body, ICASA. All we can say is, “watch this space!”

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