South Africa: State wants to call the shots over spectrum


The department of communications is moving to wrest control over management of SA’s scarce radio frequency spectrum from industry regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa), a reading of the Electronic Communications Amendment Bill, published last week, shows.

The bill gives power to the minister of communications, rather than Icasa, to determine how spectrum — some of which is in high demand from telecommunications operators — will be divided up.

Operators are unhappy at the slow pace at which Icasa is licensing access to new spectrum, especially in the 2,6GHz and 3,5GHz bands that can be used for next-generation mobile broadband networks, and this may have prompted government to attempt to usurp some of the authority’s powers in this regard.

In terms of the new bill, which must still be approved by parliament, the minister of communications — currently Dina Pule — will be responsible for coordination and approval of any radio frequency spectrum plans applicable to SA.

Furthermore, the bill proposes the creation of a national radio frequency management committee to advise the minister on spectrum issues. The bill says this committee should consist of representatives from “relevant government departments identified by the minister and one or more representatives of the authority”.

Mike Silber, Head of Legal and Commercial Affairs at fibre operator Liquid Telecom and a former regulatory adviser at the Internet Service Providers’ Association, says Icasa has “inefficiencies around spectrum allocation and management” and this is a “major concern and one that’s worth raising”. However, he warns that assuming the ministry or government department will somehow do better is “laughable”.

Approached for comment, the big telecoms operators say only that they are still studying the bill and will comment later. But one industry source, speaking on condition of anonymity because he has to work with government and Icasa, says the bill amounts to the “same old story” of a “power struggle” between the department of communications and Icasa.

The source says the proposed amendments “don’t sound like a particularly good thing” because, when it comes to issues surrounding spectrum, “you need independence” and “introducing political considerations slows the process”.

Tracy Cohen, Chief Corporate Services Officer at Neotel, says government is responsible for the development of national policy on electronic communications matters and the law requires that Icasa “is independent in the implementation of government policy”.

The law does not require that the Icasa is “vested with policy making”, though when it comes to actual implementation the divide is often blurred, Cohen says. She says Neotel will consider the amendment bill and will make detailed comments through the public consultation process, adding that the company supports any initiative to ensure that “critical competition-enhancing processes are effectively implemented”.

Already, some industry players have expressed concern that the bill will result in further delays in allocating new spectrum. However, Cohen says given that the change is only likely to come to pass in six or 12 months’ time, it does not follow that a change will necessarily slow the process in which Icasa is already engaged.

“Neotel is of the view that if the department and Icasa were to enable a spectrum secondary trading market, which was previously considered but not implemented in regulation, this would greatly assist in addressing many of the bottlenecks in spectrum efficiency,” she says.