ICASA, DoC, it’s time to get cracking

The South African information and communication technology (ICT) industry and government need to make decisions fast on how to allocate radio frequency (RF) spectrum for high-speed wireless networks, or risk of missing a big window of technology.

This is according to Andile Ngcaba, executive chairman of Dimension Data.

Telkom SA’s group CEO, Nombulelo “Pinky” Moholi, agreed with Ngcaba, saying the most important thing right now is to make a decision.

“We need to stop just talking about it – we’ve talked about it for long,” Moholi said.

2.6GHz and digital dividend: Return of the spectrum

The problems plaguing South Africa’s more sought-after RF spectrum have long been deliberated, with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) acknowledging that maintaining the status quo is not an option.

One of the problems stems from the fact that state-owned signal distributor Sentech is sitting on a chunk of spectrum in the 2.6GHz band making it impossible for other operators to roll out LTE, widely seen as the successor to mobile broadband technologies such as HSPA+ and WiMAX, in its more popular frequency division duplex (FDD) configuration.

Industry players have criticised government for allowing Sentech to sit on their 50MHz allotment in the 2.6GHz band without using it.

While many have called for the signal distributor to give up their spectrum, Sentech CEO Setumo Mohapi made it clear that they would not relinquish any of it and that they would use it in the roll-out of their national broadband network.

Another problem South Africa faces is the delay of its migration to digital TV broadcasting.

This was due in large part to the Department of Communications (DoC) under Siphiwe Nyanda and Mamodupi Mohlala announcing that South Africa was suspending its plans to use the European DVB-T (Digital Video Broadcasting – Terrestrial) standard and would re-evaluate which digital terrestrial television (DTT) standard it would use.

During the firestorm that erupted between representatives of the competing standards, President Jacob Zuma removed Nyanda from office and appointed Radhakrishna “Roy” Padayachie as the Minister of Communications.

In January 2011, logic prevailed when Padayachie announced that SA would use the newer version of the European standard, predictably called DVB-T2.

The delay in South Africa’s migration to digital broadcasting meant that there would also be delays in freeing up spectrum used for old analogue TV broadcasts, called the “digital dividend.”

These frequencies, along with those in 2.6GHz band, have been earmarked internationally for roll-out of mobile broadband technologies such as LTE.

The sooner operators are licensed to use these frequencies, the sooner they can start kitting out their towers and other sites to make use of it and the sooner end-users will be able to buy the improved services promised by LTE.

Lower frequency spectrum, such as that of the digital dividend, is also ideal for rolling out networks to rural areas as lower frequencies offer larger coverage areas.

Promising talks

Answering questions at a recent event hosted at the University of Pretoria by local branches of the IEEE, ICASA said that there have been talks with Sentech regarding the migration of their spectrum in the 2.6GHz band, as well as returning some of it.

The exact outcome of these talks has not been disclosed as yet.

ICASA also said that there is reason to license both the spectrum in 2.6GHz and the digital dividend at the same time and that it wants to conclude this licensing in March 2012.

The devil is in the details

Although it was encouraging to hear of the wide-ranging discussions ICASA is involved in regarding  these issues, one can’t help but worry that no decisions have been made and no action has been taken.

Before the frequencies in 2.6GHz can be allocated, Sentech either has to relinquish their spectrum, fully migrate it, or relinquish some and migrate the rest.

Amongst other details, ICASA must also decide whether it will auction the spectrum in the event that there are more applications than there is spectrum – which is a likely scenario. If an auction is to be had, ICASA must decide on its format.

There are other options to a straight-forward auction, such as building an open-access wireless network that operates on a wholesale basis. At SATNAC 2011 in East London, Telkom CEO Pinky Moholi also suggested a hybrid model as a possible “best of both worlds” solution.

If this is to be achieved then it remains to be decided who will build this network, how it will function, and how it will be regulated.

The DoC has already stated its desire to encourage new entrants into the wireless network operator market with this round of spectrum licensing, which means this will have to be balanced with allowing established operators access to the spectrum which they need to improve their services.

Then, once all of the details have been worked out, ICASA needs to issue an Invitation to Apply (ITA) document and adjudicate the responses to it.

Given that we’re already in September 2011 and little or no concrete decisions have been made yet, ICASA and the DoC will have to get cracking, especially if ICASA is serious about finalising the licensing of this spectrum by March 2012.

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ICASA, DoC, it’s time to get cracking