‘Illegal’ spectrum usage battle

There is a storm brewing between Wireless Business Solutions (WBS) and the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) over unpaid license fees for its microwave backhaul network.

ITWeb recently reported that WBS owes ICASA around R24 million for microwave links which it did not declare to the regulator.

“WBS has since applied for some of the links to be licensed, but ICASA’s council refuses to sanction the use of spectrum until WBS pays the outstanding fees, which have been due for almost two years,” ITWeb reports.

A source close to the company’s operations said that WBS/iBurst has been running unlicensed microwave links for many years, and that it was definitely not a secret to top management.

It is understood that the long application period to get a link approved through ICASA often prompted WBS to construct links without following the proper procedure.

ICASA explains

ICASA explained that WBS was licenced for spectrum on a national basis with the condition that they inform the regulator as soon as new links are rolled out. “WBS/iBurst has failed to do this,” said ICASA.

“The past year has seen most of the links that are currently being used by WBS getting licenced and the Authority is in the process of licensing the remaining links,” said ICASA.

“There are currently a number of applications for links that were forwarded to Council for approval but were rejected due to the fact that WBS is owing approximately R24m in outstanding licence fees,” said ICASA.

ICASA said that they are currently in discussions with WBS to finalise the matter around payment of outstanding licence fees.

“The company has been operating approximately 1000 unlicensed links some of which have been licenced especially for their point to area assignments such as 1800 MHz, 3.5 GHz, etc,” explained ICASA.

“The licences that are outstanding relate to those links which they rolled out from 1 April 2010 up to now without authorisation from the Authority.”

ICASA added that WBS said that they will recalculate the fee from their side and make a payment next month.

“Should there be any further dispute about the amount they need to pay and the one they believe is due to the Authority, there will be engagements with the Authority,” ICASA concluded.

Putting operations at risk?

WBS’s microwave links are used by both iBurst for their backhaul network and by Broadlink to provide their clients with reliable wireless connectivity.

Some industry players questioned whether WBS put iBurst and Broadlink’s network – and hence also their clients’ operations – at risk by not adhering to the licensing procedure.

Broadlink responds

Mike Brown
Mike Brown

Broadlink MD Mike Brown told MyBroadband that while they do not handle regulatory issues and are essentially only a service provider of WBS, they are confident that their links are licensed and paid for.

Brown is further perplexed by the R24 million figure being bandied around, arguing that if WBS did not accurately log all their links with ICASA, how can the regulator come up with an accurate figure of spectrum fees owed?

Brown said that he is comfortable that their links are licensed and paid for, and that it is business as usual at Broadlink.

iBurst not saying much

iBurst/WBS was contacted to gain clarity on how many links the company operated since they started operations, and how many links were licensed and paid for, but the company did not want to disclose these figures.

iBurst explained that “in terms of the number of links deployed and outstanding fees thereof, this forms the basis of our discussion with ICASA”.

“Further, in terms of deploying links on spectrum allocated on a national basis, each operator rolls out and reports all links deployed to ICASA thus it is our view that WBS has never deployed any illegal links which were never reported to ICASA,” said WBS.

iBurst executives and staff not very talkative

iBurst’s executive head of human resources and legal Pearlene Singh would not answer questions about the WBS licensing issues, saying that she is on holiday and would appreciate it if she is not disturbed.

Former iBurst MD Alan Knott-Craig Junior did not respond to questions as to whether he was aware of any unlicensed microwave links, or unpaid spectrum fees, while he served as iBurst MD.

Former iBurst CEO Jannie van Zyl could also not comment, saying that he is “under a Non Disclosure Agreement with WBS and thus cannot comment on matters related to WBS or its subsidiaries including iBurst.”

Sasan Parvin
Sasan Parvin

iBurst technical director Sasan Parvin told MyBroadband that their marketing or regulatory departments would be better positioned to answer questions about the legality and licensing of the company’s microwave links.

Parvin did however say that he would never build links which have not been approved and which use unlicensed spectrum.

Current iBurst CEO Thami Mtshali could not be reached for comment.

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‘Illegal’ spectrum usage battle