Regulatory stagnation, indecision and misplaced ideologies are some of the reasons why broadband for all will likely remain a pipe dream for some time to come.
Looking back over the past year, 2012 started with a promise from the Minister of Communication that she would intervene to get the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) to speed up the process.
But as is the case with many such statements, walking the talk did not follow. Admittedly at the end of August ICASA gazetted the Draft Frequency Migration Regulation and Frequency Migration Plan for comment which was a step on the right direction, but hopelessly too late.
Clearly the minister changed her mind because in July 2012 the Department of Communication gazetted the Electronic Communications Amendment (ECA) Bill 2012 which sets out the establishment of a Spectrum Management Agency within the portfolio of the Minister of Communications.
The agency will have the responsibility for the country’s spectrum. This was the job that ICASA, as an independent regulator, was tasked to do. Now the minister wants to take control of frequency spectrum management. Maybe ICASA was not the independent body we all believed it was or is the minister uncomfortable that ICASA can change and publish regulations in terms of the Act without her consent?
If the ECA Bill is passed by parliament and written into law, one wonders how long it will be before the new body will be established, complete its planning and instruct ICASA to make frequency allocations.
In government circles it is believed that a large chunk of available spectrum for broadband should be allocated to emerging enterprises. It is a laudable proposal but an ideology that is misplaced in a highly complex and competitive market.
If ICASA or the still-to-be-established Spectrum Management Agency follow through on these proposals they will be setting emerging entrepreneurs up for failure. It will also be counter-productive to carve up the available spectrum in very small slots, a further reason for failure.
Channels of 2 x 10 MHz are suggested by the Authority while the international norm is 2 x 20 MHz. The logical way to deal with this is to allocate spectrum to well established companies that already have an operational broadband network which can be expanded.
At the beginning of 2012 MTN started a long term evolution (LTE) pilot and introduced its commercial LTE network in November to three metropolitan areas. Vodacom and 8.ta are close on the heels of MTN. By the time you read this their LTE services will be available.
The three companies are basically re-farming spectrum in the 1800 MHz band, utilising frequencies that were originally used for GSM services. Although speeds of up to 70 Mbps are achieved using 2 x 10 MHz channels, capacity is limited.
Government keeps saying “broadband services for all” but does little to facilitate this. For years South Africa suffered limited international bandwidth as the ministry at that time wanted to regulate who could land submarine cables on South African shores. It was argued that competition would not get the costs of bandwidth down and that the government had to have control over it.
Once government dropped this notion, several new cable projects were completed and brought the cost of bandwidth down, maybe not as low as we would like to see but I am convinced that once we have adequate backbone between the landing sites and the metros we will see more cost reductions.
It all boils down to innovation driving regulation and not vice versa.
In my opinion, in the year that was, industry moved ahead despite lack of appropriate regulatory initiatives by government.