How South Africa’s national cellphone network will work

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) has published an information memo explaining its plan for licensing 4G and 5G spectrum in South Africa.

ICASA presents five different options for dividing up the highly sought-after radio frequencies, all of which include an allotment for a national wholesale open-access network (WOAN).

Minister of Communications Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams published the government’s spectrum policy in July 2019. In it, she directed ICASA to set aside and license spectrum to the WOAN.

Radio frequency spectrum that is not assigned to the WOAN will be auctioned to the highest bidder, with the reserve prices still to be determined.

In addition to describing its intentions for South Africa’s available 4G and 5G spectrum, ICASA also revealed more of its plans around how the WOAN will operate.

Spectrum for the WOAN

ICASA’s information memo stipulates the following options for radio frequency spectrum assignments for the WOAN:

  • Option 1: 2×25MHz (IMT800), 2×20MHz (IMT2600), and 1×25MHz (IMT2600)
  • Option 2&3: 2×20MHz (IMT800) and 1×40MHz (IMT2600)
  • Option 4: 2×20MHz (IMT700) and 1×40MHz (IMT2600)
  • Option 5: 2×10MHz (IMT700), 2×10MHz (IMT800), and 1×40MHz (IMT2600)

Roaming and infrastructure sharing for the WOAN

The network operators that win radio spectrum for their 4G and 5G networks will be obligated to offer a number of services to the WOAN.

This means that Vodacom, MTN, and other network operators that are assigned spectrum, will have to give the WOAN wholesale access to their passive and active infrastructure.

“This will be on a cost-oriented basis and on reasonable terms,” ICASA said.

Passive infrastructure highlighted in this requirement includes base station sites, space on towers, and co-location facilities.

Mobile network operators will also need to provide seamless national roaming services to the WOAN. This must also be on a cost-oriented and non-discriminatory basis.

This means that if you use a network service provider that runs on the WOAN and you go outside its coverage area, ICASA’s intention is that subscribers will roam onto one of South Africa’s other mobile network operators.

“The right of the [WOAN] to benefit from mandated national roaming will expire after a period of five years from the award of the [spectrum licence], at which point the [WOAN] will be expected to have nationwide coverage from its own network,” ICASA said.

The WOAN’s obligations

ICASA stated that it intends to impose licence obligations on the WOAN to ensure that it provisions wholesale services around the country.

This includes roaming, access to MVNOs, and wholesale mobile data services.

The WOAN must provide these services in a non-discriminatory and transparent way, with affordable prices determined on a cost-oriented basis with a reasonable rate of return.

ICASA said that it may give the WOAN a 3-5 year “licence obligation holiday”. It may also impose additional wholesale obligations on network operators that win the other portions of available 4G and 5G spectrum.

Anyone interested in submitting feedback to ICASA regarding its views on the licensing of high-demand spectrum has until 16:00 on 31 January 2020 to send in their written feedback.

Now read: Spectrum must be used to slash data prices – Competition Commission

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How South Africa’s national cellphone network will work