Turning broadband upside down

One loses count of how many times South Africa’s government has made pronouncements about broadband. It has been moved left, then right and now it appears to have been turned upside down.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has recently made very strong statements about spectrum, and said that spectrum would be released to industry soon.

He even charged Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams to reign over the Department of Communications (DOC) and the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS), and requested she merge the two departments as a matter of urgency.

At the time of writing this, spectrum has not been released. From some throw-away comments overheard at the recently held Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) 5G Forum, it appears that somewhere in our government communications structure, people are still holding onto the idea of the Wireless Open Access Network (WOAN) concept, first talked about in the now aged communications white paper published in October 2016.

So, the spectrum that may eventually be released will be that high-demand spectrum which is not earmarked for the WOAN. The world has moved on. Is that what the President had in mind? Difficult to believe!

The Draft ECA Amendment Bill was officially taken off the parliamentary agenda and with that the proposed rapid deployment regulations aimed at making it easier and less expensive to obtain wayleaves to lay fibre and put up radio masts.

Officials do not seem to understand that all these factors increase the cost incurred by communications service providers, who have the responsibility to run businesses that are profitable for shareholders. By complicating roll-out, the associated costs ultimately come out the users’ pocket.

Talking about 5G and the recent ICASA two-day forum on the subject, one can’t help become cynical about the subject. If there was hype about WiMAX and LTE, we’ve seen nothing yet.

Many companies are announcing 5G trials, a great marketing ploy because 5G is not going to happen overnight. Just think about the fibre cables that have to be laid and antenna masts that have to be erected to connect the thousands of base stations which are only a few hundred metres apart.

At the ICASA forum, use-cases dominated the agenda with wonderful proposals on how 5G will enrich our lives. There is no argument about that, the real thing that will drive 5G is the actual network technology and that “ugly word”, spectrum.

The world will meet in Egypt at the end of October this year at the ITU World Radio Conference (WRC19) to deliberate on the spectrum to be set aside for 5G. South Africa is well prepared to share its views and requirements, which have been determined in another forum, the Preparatory WRC19 Industry Forum under the stewardship of the (for now) DTPS.

To the credit of the ICASA 5G forum, a spectrum working group was formed which amongst other subjects discussed the WRC19 spectrum issues and brought delegates up to speed with South Africa’s position.

There is nothing wrong discussing 5G use-cases, but in the final analyses many of the ideas could be implemented right now, using current technology like 3G and 4G and don’t have to wait for the magical 5G.

Many of the use-cases are not dependant on the very high speed and low latency that 5G will offer. But I forgot is that word again “spectrum”.

ICASA will be holding another 5G forum towards the end of September when the various working groups have to report back.

The next forum should expand its focus and spend more time on technology and standards that will inform a regulatory framework for 5G. Hats off to ICASA for taking the 5G forum initiative.

Now read: Vodacom in discussions to launch 5G in South Africa

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Turning broadband upside down