South Africa could get spectrum trading and sharing — but hoarding is banned

Communications minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni published a draft spectrum policy on Thursday for public comment.

Titled “Next Generation Radio Frequency Spectrum Policy”, the policy outlines the government’s plans for scarce wireless network capacity.

This includes switching off South Africa’s 2G and 3G networks, and sharing and trading radio frequency spectrum.

Ntshavheni revealed in June that her department was working on the revised spectrum policy, explaining that it forms part of a broader plan to make the resource available to more players in South Africa.

She also announced that government plans to give radio frequency spectrum to the State Digital Infrastructure Company (SDIC) — an entity yet to be formed by merging several state-owned organisations with network infrastructure.

The SDIC would include companies like Sentech and Broadband Infraco.

“We accept the responsibility that we cannot leave our fate and the fate of the country in the hands of the telecommunications operators that are commercially driven,” Ntshavheni said.

“We hold as a department and government a State Digital Infrastructure Company that has a responsibility to make sure that all South Africans have access to technology.”

During a media briefing on Thursday, Ntshavheni said the spectrum policy aims to promote small and medium-sized enterprises, and foster the emergence of new entrants in the ICT sector.

“Our commitment of economic inclusion through the participation of SMMEs in the ICT sector remains a priority,” she said.

“While we acknowledge that due to limitations in spectrum, it is not possible to license spectrum to all more than 400 ECNS and ECS license holders, of which majority are SMMEs.

“However, we must continue with measures which will ensure that ultimately SMMEs are included in the ICT sector including on access to spectrum.”

Included in the spectrum policy is a direction to the industry regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa), to develop rules for a secondary market for spectrum.

Icasa must provide a regulatory framework to ensure that the resultant transactions do not negatively impact competition.

The regulator must also introduce regulations to enable flexible sharing models between licenses — spectrum pooling, leasing, sub-letting, and sales of spectrum licences.

“[Icasa], together with the Competition Commission SA, should ascertain that an ECNS holder acquiring spectrum… will not have a negative impact on competition and have an unfair advantage over smaller competitors,” the policy states.

“[Icasa] must put in place a regulatory framework which clarifies spectrum trading rules between licensees, and promote approaches that prohibits monopolisation of spectrum, dominance, and anti-competitive behaviors in the market.”

The policy states that new technologies enable more efficient use of spectrum, either limiting the power to avoid interference to primary users; or tapping into unused spectrum at a given time and geographic location.

“To promote spectrum efficiency, coordination for the purpose of spectrum sharing and the use of technologies that will enable greater spectrum sharing amongst different users is permitted with the prior approval of the Regulator,” it states.

No hoarding

Although the policy paves the way for network operators to monetise their spectrum holdings through sub-letting and sharing arrangements, it tackles concerns over hoarding the precious resource.

“The Regulator should put measures in place that prevents hoarding of spectrum including mechanisms for the implementation of the ‘use it or lose it’ principle,” the policy states.

“Licensed spectrum that is unused for a period of more than 24 months will be subjected to the use it or lose it principle.”

Interested parties have 30 working days from 8 September 2022 to comment in the draft policy.

Now read: South Africa’s proposed plan to shut down 2G and 3G — including banning 2G devices

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South Africa could get spectrum trading and sharing — but hoarding is banned