ICASA reveals plans for spectrum assignment

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) revealed its plans today (14 December) for the much sought-after spectrum in the 800MHz and 2600MHz (or 2.6GHz) bands.

ICASA previously announced that it would publish the invitation to apply (ITA) and spectrum license plan on 9 December 2011 and applications would close on 23 March 2012. However, the publication was rescheduled to today (14 December 2012), though the closing date for the ITA remains the same.

The authority had published an ITA for spectrum in the 2.6GHz and 3.5GHz bands in 2010, but cancelled it after attracting heavy criticism from industry. Among the complaints were that it was unclear how spectrum would be auctioned in the event that more than one party applied for a particular portion of spectrum.

Asked what the plan is this time in the event of an auction, ICASA explained that it viewed an auction as a last resort, but should more than one applicant be successful for a particular spectrum package they will go to a sealed bid auction.

ICASA also said that it held off on including the 3.5GHz band in the ITA as international developments are underway to reconfigure the 3.5GHz band. This was replaced by a plan to license the lower frequency 800MHz band instead.

The 800Mhz band forms part of what is known as the “digital dividend” – a portion of the frequency spectrum that will only become available once South Africa’s migration from analogue to digital broadcasting is complete.

Under Roy Padayachie, the Department of Communications said that the digital migration should be completed by December 2013. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has prescribed an analogue switch off date of 17 June 2015.

This spectrum is desirable for wireless network roll-out beyond urban areas as it offers wider coverage and better indoor penetration.

ICASA said that blocks of spectrum in 800MHz will be bundled with blocks in the 2.6GHz band, and these will be licensed together.

The licensing of spectrum in the 2.6GHz band has been hampered by previous assignments in the band to Sentech and WBS (iBurst) that make it impossible to deploy LTE technology in its most popular configuration.

Sentech’s portion presented the biggest problem as the state-owned signal distributor occupied a whopping 50MHz at the start of the band.

ICASA’s Dumisa Ngwenya explained that they took away 20MHz from Sentech and gave them spectrum in the 1800MHz band to make up for it, and migrated their remaining 30MHz within the band.

Some of the 2.6GHz spectrum is reserved for licensees who have no spectrum in the designated IMT bands, while some of it is reserved for the roll-out of wholesale open access networks.

The authority explained that they wish to allow for as many operators as possible to get access to the spectrum, to which end they introduced spectrum packages that will only be available on a wholesale basis.

ICASA panellists
ICASA panellists

Spectrum package breakdown

Of these packages, the most notable are the following:

  1. Two 2.6Ghz blocks are reserved for brand new wireless telecommunications operators.
  2. A block of 2.6GHz and 800MHz is reserved for an I-ECNS license holder on wholesale access conditions.
  3. A block of 2.6GHz and 800MHz is reserved for Sentech on wholesale open access conditions.

The wholesale access conditions are as follows:

  • No locking: No prohibitions against devices.
  • No blocking: No restriction against content, applications, and services.
  • No retail: Entity won’t be allowed to compete with its customers.

Pre-requisites for applicants

Other conditions potential licensees must comply with are as follows:

  • HDI component: Minimum 30% ownership
  • ECNS license holder
  • Financially credible – audited financial statement.

Asked about the whether companies could make use of a special purpose vehicle to make up the necessary 30% HDI component, ICASA said that they would not encourage it.

Roll-out obligations

Over and above the pre-requisites imposed on applicants, should they be successful, ICASA said it wants to impose the following roll-out obligations:

  • For those that received 800MHz and 2.6GHz spectrum: 70% geographic coverage in 5 years, of which 50% must exclude urban areas such as Gauteng metros, Durban and Cape Town.
  • For those that only receive 2.6GHz spectrum: 50% population coverage in 4 years.

ICASA said that it is inviting comment on what they have proposed and pleaded with interested parties to stick to the deadlines set out in the document as it won’t be giving extensions.

Deadlines

The following deadlines were announced:

  • Closing date for draft ITA and draft spectrum plan: 31 Jan 2012.
  • Public hearings 1-3 Feb 2012.
  • Publication of the spectrum plan and the invitation to apply: 13 Feb 2012.
  • ITA to close on 23 March 2012.
  • Finalise licensing process on 30 April 2012.

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Sentech’s plans for its valuable spectrum
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ICASA reveals plans for spectrum assignment