Big fight over the “I” in ICASA

The City Press has reported that the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) and Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams are “at war”.

According to the report, the minister is being accused of “meddling in the independent authority’s work and withholding their funding by refusing to approve its annual performance plan (APP)”.

Citing a letter which ICASA sent to the minister, the report states that the regulator is threatening legal action unless her department pays R450 million by 11:00 tomorrow.

Unless ICASA receives this money, it will not be able to meet its financial commitments – like paying salaries and service providers.

The minister is allegedly holding ICASA to ransom by demanding that it changes its performance plan and remove all references to 4G spectrum and 5G.

The reason, the City Press said, is that Ndabeni-Abrahams wants to save the announcement of 5G cellular networks in the local market and the sale of new spectrum for her own election promises.

Neither ICASA nor the communications minister commented on the allegation by City Press.

Policy directive on spectrum allocation promised

Earlier this month Ndabeni-Abrahams and her deputy, Pinky Kekana, met with ICT industry leaders to finalise consultations on their interpretation of the spectrum licensing process.

The meeting follows written submissions previously made by the sector on the matter.

Licensing of high-demand spectrum is deemed necessary to lessen resource constraints experienced by incumbent mobile operators.

It is also seen as a way to enable transformation of a historically vertically-integrated market, leveling the playing field and enabling new players to enter the market.

It will also contribute to reducing the cost to communicate and drive universal services and access.

Ndabeni-Abrahams has said that while stakeholders might not agree on all aspects in Electronic Communications Act (ECA), they must strive to find consensus that ensures that high-demand spectrum is licensed.

“Since the advent of mobile broadband, spectrum has turned out to be both a competitive and an anti-competitive tool for incumbent network operators and a barrier to entry for new entrants.

“Some spectrum lies unutilised or underutilised in time or space and we would like to change that by making sure that spectrum is effectively and efficiently licensed in order to address not only revenue generation, but to also ensure inclusive participation,” Ndabeni-Abrahams said.

The meeting agreed that the spectrum policy directive and licencing processes must be swiftly finalised.

Additionally, common ground should be reached between the policymakers and the regulator to ensure the process is concluded and spectrum is duly allocated timeously.

Kekana also emphasised the importance of the process as pronounced by both President Cyril Ramaphosa and Finance Minister Tito Mboweni in the 2019 State of the Nation Address and Budget Speech respectively.

The final policy directive on spectrum allocation, the department said, will be issued by the end of April 2019.

ICASA wants to move forward

The department’s statements follow ICASA stating in February that it “can and will proceed” with assigning 4G and 5G spectrum in South Africa, even though the amendment bill to the Electronic Communication Act has been withdrawn.

A spokesperson for the regulator told MyBroadband that ICASA welcomed the withdrawal of the bill and the commitment by Ndabeni-Abrahams to further consultation on the matter.

“In its presentation to Parliament on the bill, ICASA raised some concerns – particularly the impact of the bill on its independence, and the encroachment on its powers as regards control and management of radio frequency spectrum.”

Among the changes the bill dealt with was the introduction of a wholesale open access network (WOAN), which was part of a larger debate on how scarce resources such as 4G and 5G spectrum should be assigned in South Africa.

The withdrawal of the bill until after the general elections in May 2019 therefore raises concerns that there will once again be delays in the allocation of high-demand spectrum to mobile network operators.

South Africa’s cellular networks have said that the release of spectrum will allow them to offer cheaper and faster mobile data services in the country, and must therefore happen immediately.

Now read: Final policy directive on spectrum allocation coming this month

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Big fight over the “I” in ICASA