Give us frequencies reserved for national cellular network, says South Africa’s mobile operators

Mobile network operators believe the spectrum that would’ve been allocated to South Africa’s national open-access cellular network should be given to them as soon as possible.

In March 2022, the South African government announced its intention to shelve plans for a wholesale open-access network (WOAN).

This came after it had promoted the idea of a national cellular network to increase competition in the mobile industry for years.

Theoretically, the WOAN would offer shared infrastructure to service providers who did not have their own cellular networks.

Mexico’s WOAN, Red Compartida, was held up as an example of the model in action.

However, the telecommunications company behind Mexico’s WOAN, Altan Redes, filed for bankruptcy in July 2021.

At the end of 2021, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) delayed the licencing of the WOAN.

Shortly after, in March 2022, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Cabinet put forward a policy amendment that would suspend the plan to build the WOAN.

MyBroadband asked South Africa’s major mobile network operators about the WOAN potentially being indefinitely shelved.

A Vodacom spokesperson said that the mobile operator is encouraged that government is re-evaluating its approach to the WOAN “given the recent global developments.”

MTN agreed with this sentiment.

“We believe that the proposed policy amendment takes cognisance of global developments as it relates to wholesale network policy advances.”

“It demonstrates a more desirable approach to the policy framework at a time when encouraging highly sought-after capital investments is paramount to developing South Africa’s economy.”

“The proposed draft policy indicates government’s willingness to move towards a more balanced policy approach of both service-based and infrastructure-based competition in the mobile sector,” MTN said.

In March 2022, Icasa held its wireless spectrum auction, raising R14.5 billion from mobile networks for the national fiscus in exchange for precious radio waves — raw wireless network capacity.

Vodacom said that although the auction helped significantly to address the decade-long backlog in spectrum assignment, more is needed to put South African operators on the same level as their global counterparts.

“If there is a decision to defer the potential licensing of a WOAN, then Vodacom recommends that the spectrum originally set aside for the WOAN be immediately assigned to the mobile operators,” the company said.

“What really matters is a policy framework which supports both infrastructure-based competition and the development of downstream service-based competition,” MTN said.

“This trend is already developing in South Africa with shared towers, fibre, and national roaming including LTE networks.”

March of this year was also when South Africa’s communications department released a draft policy on the licensing of spectrum previously set aside for the WOAN.

“The proposed policy amendment allows existing mobile network operators to compete for the licensing of high-demand spectrum,” MTN said.

“This would also allow an operator like us, that has invested in its network for more than two decades, to be able to access further frequencies in what will hopefully be in a subsequent licensing process.”

Zahir Williams
Zahir Williams, Cell C Chief Legal Officer

Cell C also threw its hat in the ring to try and ensure that smaller operators do not get left behind should Icasa issue more spectrum licenses.

“We have made a submission, amongst others, requesting the Minister to close the spectrum gap, and that consideration be made for equitable access to IMT spectrum for small operators like us,” Cell C chief legal officer Zahir Williams said.

There were suggestions that if a private sector investor with the necessary experience spearheaded the project, it could be a success.

Vumatel owner Community Investment Ventures Holdings (CIVH) put its name up for consideration.

We asked CIVH for their views about the status of the WOAN, but the company did not respond at the time of publication.

MTN said it believes competition in wholesale and retail services is a better way to achieve the amendment policy’s objectives than a debate on the ownership of a wholesale player.

“If competitive forces don’t deliver or have not delivered, then the issue of a WOAN can be a method of achieving the objectives set out in the amended draft policy.”

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Give us frequencies reserved for national cellular network, says South Africa’s mobile operators