The telecommunications sector in South Africa has experienced start-stop progress in the allocation of high-demand spectrum, with Icasa processes having started as early as November 2006. Numerous discussion documents and proposals have been mooted, hearings held, and deadlines set and broken.
However, some progress was evident at the end of August 2014 when Icasa released the Draft Information Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) Roadmap for Consultation via a Government Gazette.
The IMT is a group of requirements issued by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for a wide range of telecommunication services, and supports fixed and mobile networks. The standards have been honed over 25 years and now service over 2 billion users worldwide who use 3G or related services.
Examples include 3G, HSPA, CDMA2000 EV-DO, DECT, and EDGE. IMT-2000 is the root concept of IMT-Advanced, a global platform on which the next generations of mobile services will be built. This includes (true) 4th Generation, 5th Generation, and early planning for 6th Generation protocols.
Icasa’s IMT Roadmap details which frequency bands are seen by Icasa to be relevant to the South African market, the characteristics of these bands (current users, overall bandwidth, channel bandwidth, modulation, TDD versus FDD, number of operators) as well as what needs to happen within these bands to reach the desired levels.
The aim is to allow South Africa to access true 4G services. An element of the plan is to make way for LTE (or similar) services for rural wireless broadband.
The timing of the roadmap publication surprised the network operators and other interested parties more so than the content, as it was published with no warning and apparently little consultation with the affected parties. Overall, the roadmap has been welcomed and praised for its thoroughness, analysis, and presentation of options for discussions.
However, a critique of the roadmap reveals several notable faults in the plan and its structure:
- The time for the interested parties to provide responses to this hefty document and complex topic was short.
- The relevance to other studies by Icasa is not clear.
- The overall process of spectrum allocation and assignment remains unclear.
- The roadmap is incomplete in the sense that it does not cover other important spectrum bands such as TV white space (TVWS), and industrial scientific and medical (ISM) radio bands.
- It cannot take into consideration what the incoming Icasa counsellors will think.
These criticisms tie in with the challenges which Icasa faces as it tries to make the IMT Roadmap a reality, and include:
- Existing assignments and allocations are not completely aligned with those of other countries: we cannot afford and do not want hybrid or unique channel plans for our local market.
- Several band and/or technology migrations will need to take place: some of these will be simple, while others will be complex.
- There is the need to quantify for future demand: a view on future demand was expressed in the Roadmap, but how this was derived was not sufficiently transparent and it may not be sufficiently robust.
In order to address these challenges, Icasa will need to consider several factors, such as:
- The terms and conditions of the licenses of the incumbent operators.
- The complexity and time to migrate users to other bands or services.
- The age of equipment and technology.
- Requirements for future planning.
Some of these elements are introduced or addressed in the roadmap, but further detail and study is required to turn these into action plans. Hearings were held by Icasa a mere 10 days after the submission date. Feedback from those present at the hearings are that they were brief and perfunctory.
It is our view that the publishing of the roadmap marks the start of a bold and necessary process. It is clear that changes in the allocation and assignment of high-demand spectrum bands are set to happen in South Africa, but we expect that it will be a long – and possibly hard – road to reach these goals. Local telecommunications operators will need to endure some pain in the short- to medium-term in order for them, and others, to reap the long-term benefits.
All of the players will play their part, and a creative and aggressive plan will need to be put in place. We look forward to understanding how the IMT Roadmap will factor into the overall and eventual allocation of this high-demand spectrum.