Government remains married to the Wireless Open Access Network (WOAN) despite the opposition it received from all quarters when the concept was first published in the National Integrated ICT Policy White paper in 2016.
The WOAN concept has, to date, not been successfully implemented anywhere in the world and countries like Australia and Russia abandoned the idea, yet South Africa pushed forward.
South Africa’s spectrum drought will continue for now, as Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) is likely to follow the standard public consultation processes. But at least there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Attempts to legalise the WOAN with the amendments to the Electronic Communication Act failed as the draft ECA Amendment Bill was modified once and withdrawn earlier this year.
The minister said in the policy announcement (Government Gazette 42597 of 26 July 2019) that she may direct ICASA to accept and consider applications for individual network service licences that provide wholesale electronic communication network services (the WOAN).
Research carried out by the CSIR found, after studying viability and sustainability on the basis of 20% market share, that the WOAN would require the following spectrum:
- 2 x 25 MHz of 800 MHz band (band 20).
- 2 x 20 MHz of 2600 MHz FDD (Frequency Diversity Duplex) band (Band 7).
- 25 MHz of 2600 MHz TDD (Time Division Duplex) band (Band 38).
The remainder of the high demand spectrum will become available to individual licensees but conditions apply.
Who will own the WOAN?
ICASA is directed to issue an invitation, accept and consider applications for an individual electronic communications network service license for a WOAN.
Minister Ndabeni-Abrahams says in her policy statement that the WOAN is an important policy instrument to lower barriers to entry for smaller players (there over 400 electronic communications network service licensees), improve ownership of the ICT sector by historically disadvantaged individuals, and to promote service-based competition. This may be so, but will it bring down the cost of broadband? Many are sceptical.
And who will likely apply? At a workshop held last year and chaired by the director general of DTPS, Robert Nkuna, Telkom and Cell C supported the WOAN concept in principle and indicated that they would consider taking it on. However, much water has flowed under the bridge and they may well have changed their minds.
ICASA is also directed to consider special conditions for the WOAN such as a reduced spectrum fee covering only administrative costs and reduced or waived radio spectrum licence fees for a period of ten years.
A minimum of 30% of national capacity must be procured from the WOAN collectively as soon as the WOAN is operational for a period of five years by radio frequency spectrum licensees that are assigned high demand spectrum.
High demand spectrum remaining after allocation to the WOAN may be assigned to other electronic communications network service licenses, a process that must commence simultaneously.
However, there many conditions attached such as the collective 30% uptake of the WOAN.
ICASA seeks consultants to establish a fair price for spectrum
Shortly after the policy announcement, ICASA issued an invitation to apply for a tender to help the authority value high-demand spectrum bands ahead of a planned assignment of the valuable radio frequencies.
ICASA wishes to appoint consultants to provide consultancy services to assist with determination of the fair economic value of the IMT700, IMT800, IMT2300, IMT2600 and IMT3500 radio frequency spectrum.
The spectrum in question are all suitable for providing mobile broadband services, however, IMT700 and IMT800 bands are not available as large-scale digital migration of TV services has not commenced. The bands are still being used for television broadcasting.
ICASA said it will have a non-compulsory briefing for parties interested in bidding for the consultancy tender on 6 August. The deadline to submit bids is 20 August.
5G on hold till after WRC19
ICASA is directed to investigate and report to the minister on the spectrum requirement for 5G in bands lower than 6 GHz and the millimetre wave bands currently under study at WRC19.
The report should be submitted to the minister within six months of the conference, which takes place in Egypt at the end of October this year.
The investigation should cover the affected bands, the required ecosystem to support 5G, and the licensing implications.