LTE spectrum for SA: SNAFU

Following her proposal to establish a Spectrum Management Agency in South Africa, Minister of Communications Dina Pule isn’t revealing how she’s going to address the assignment of precious spectrum.

Cellular network operators in South Africa are ready for Long Term Evolution (LTE), a high speed mobile broadband technology, but they have all expressed a dire need for additional spectrum to roll out LTE.

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) was to assign spectrum ideal for the use of LTE, but withdrew its invitation to apply (ITA) pending a “policy direction” from the Minister of Communications.

The Minister previously told journalists during a press briefing at the DoC’s ICT Policy Colloquium held during April 2012 that, “immediately after analysing the public’s inputs… somewhere around May [2012]” they would be able to direct ICASA on the matter.

Dina Pule
Dina Pule

However, on 8 May 2012 the Minister told the parliamentary portfolio committee on communications that they should commit to finalising the policy direction for high-demand spectrum by the end of the financial year.

Government’s financial year ends on 31 March 2013, which is a far cry from the previous target of May 2012 indicated by Pule.

In the meantime, the Minister has gazetted the Electronic Communications Amendment Bill for public comment. The period during which comments on the bill may be made, closed on 17 August 2012.

As it stands now, the bill requires the establishment of a Spectrum Management Agency, which is expected to represent the Minister’s role in spectrum management issues.

However, Dominic Cull, a telecommunications lawyer at Ellipsis Regulatory Solutions that specialises in regulatory issues in electronic communications law, previously explained that the Minister would have to bring a separate piece of legislation designed to create such an agency.

Where does that leave the high-demand frequency spectrum ICASA had issued (and retracted) their ITA for? Will the Ministry and Department of Communications still issue a policy direction within the current financial year, or will it wait until the Spectrum Management Agency is established?

Repeated attempts to get answers to these questions from the Minister have been met with promises, but delivered only silence.

Forging ahead in spite of spectrum limitations

Kanagaratnam Lambotharan
Kanagaratnam Lambotharan

MTN recently revealed its plans to launch commercial LTE services on refarmed spectrum during Q4 2012.

The network ran an LTE pilot on 10MHz of refarmed 1,800MHz spectrum on approximately 200 sites, MTN SA chief technology officer, Kanagaratnam Lambotharan, told MyBroadband.

“MTN is exploring the possibility of switching on commercial LTE network within 2012, and has identified 3 key urban cities to roll out the network. Pricing has not been finalised yet,” Lambotharan said.

This firm statement of intent from MTN is yet another case of South Africa’s telecommunications industry working in spite of government’s involvement, rather than because of it.

If government, the Minister, and the Department of Communications are serious about their “broadband for all by 2020” plans, it’s time for them to stop trying to participate in the industry, and govern it instead of talking about governing it.

Isn’t that, after all, what governments are for?

Technical note: The spectrum in question is in the 2.6GHz band and the 800MHz “digital dividend” band. The 800MHz spectrum will only become available once South Africa’s migration from analogue to digital TV broadcasting is complete.

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LTE spectrum for SA: SNAFU