South Africa’s plan for a government broadband network

Communications minister Mondli Gungubele has issued a policy directing telecommunications regulator Icasa to reserve spectrum for use by the State Digital Infrastructure Company (SDIC).

Gungubele published the Next-Generation Radio Frequency Spectrum Policy for Economic Development in a Government Gazette on Tuesday.

It outlines how the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) must regulate and assign high-demand spectrum in future.

This must be done to “advance long-term public interest in the use of spectrum as a finite resource” and enable the socio-economic development of its citizens.

There are multiple market-based approaches to allow the private sector access to spectrum, including purchasing, spectrum sharing, and trading.

Icasa will also be obliged to reserve spectrum for government usage.

This usage includes governmental services, the SDIC, and public protection and disaster relief.

South Africa’s initial plans to create a wholesale open-access network (WOAN) were replaced by the SDIC.

It will be formed by merging the existing networks of Sentech and Broadband Infraco, creating a nationalised alternative to the telecommunications industry.

“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,” then-communications minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni stated in 2022.

The policy document highlights the SDIC’s need for spectrum access to address the lack of Internet connection in rural, underserved, and remote areas.

It intends to use the spectrum to provide a backhaul for state connectivity to support attempts to increase nationwide access to the Internet.

It further emphasises the need for spectrum to enable the participation of small, micro and medium-sized enterprises in the industry.

Additionally, Icasa must continue implementing lower spectrum fees for government services.

This will include telecommunications networks of state-owned enterprises such as Sanral and Eskom.

These government services must still apply to Icasa to be assigned spectrum.

Spectrum must also be set aside for narrowband and broadband public protection and disaster relief services to ensure a secure and dedicated radiocommunication channel.

The spectrum assigned for state use will be technology-neutral, meaning the licensees will choose the technology they wish to use to provide the services they need.

State spectrum users will be restricted from hoarding it, and a use-it-or-lose-it policy will apply just as it does to private sector licensees.

If spectrum goes unused for 24 months, it will be subject to this policy “unless prior arrangements have been made with [Icasa].”

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South Africa’s plan for a government broadband network