Connecting Africa is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 3099067.


South Africa Finally Publishes Spectrum Policy Direction

Article Image

South Africa's long-awaited spectrum policy direction has finally been published and the government's planned wireless open access network (WOAN) is front and center.

"The WOAN is an important policy instrument to lower barriers to entry for smaller players, improve the ownership of the ICT sector by historically disadvantaged individuals and to promote service-based competition," the policy direction published in the Government Gazette on Friday reads.

"The Authority should licence spectrum to the WOAN in a manner that enables it to fulfil its policy mandate and to thrive," government says.

South Africa's mobile operators have been waiting for many years for high-demand radio frequency spectrum for 4G to be released by the government. Telcos have until now been forced to refarm 2G and 3G spectrum to provide 4G services, despite the rest of the world moving swiftly towards the roll-out of 5G.

As long ago as 2016, South Africa's telecoms regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA), tried to get the ball rolling and set plans in motion to license spectrum in the 700MHz, 800MHz and 2600MHz bands. However, its plans were halted by a court interdict initiated by former Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS) minister Siyabonga Cwele, and the spectrum process was left in limbo once again.

Promises were made last year that spectrum would be allocated by the end of March 2019, but that deadline came and went. There has been a big push in recent months by South African president Cyril Ramaphosa to fast track spectrum allocation, and in June he promised that Communications and Digital Technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams would publish the policy within 30 days. (See SA President Promises Spectrum Policy Direction Within 30 Days.)

Communications and Digital Technologies Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. (Photo courtesy of GCIS).
Communications and Digital Technologies Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. (Photo courtesy of GCIS).

The DTPS and the Department of Communications (DOC) amalgamated in Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT) in June, led by Ndabeni-Abrahams, who was the former DOC minister. (See SA Intros New Comms & Digital Tech Department.)

"The Minister recognises that there are over four hundred players that hold electronic communications network service licenses but cannot access spectrum, due to its scarcity. This has an adverse effect competition, contributes to the high costs to communicate and serves as a barrier to entry for new entrants and SMMEs. Government is committed to maximising the socio-economic benefits derived from the use of the spectrum and recognises that a shared approach to spectrum use is necessary," the gazette says.

"The deployment of a WOAN will encourage licensees to work together as far as it is practicable. The value of sharing and collaboration between licensees is that it will result in the more effective use of spectrum. Government fully supports A WOAN as a means to meet the public policy objectives."

WOAN what?
The first mention of the WOAN was in 2016 when the DTPS published its National Integrated ICT Policy White Paper. The idea was a radical shake-up of the spectrum policy framework that South Africa was used to and called for an 'open access regime' with the WOAN outlined as a "public-private sector-owned and -managed consortium." What that really meant was anyone's guess and both industry insiders and analysts voiced their displeasure at the time with the vague policy. Examples of similar open access wireless network trials in countries like Mexico, Kenya and Rwanda had not proved very successful and very few people actually believed the WOAN model could work for South Africa. (See Analyzing South Africa's Controversial 4G Wholesale Plan and Wholesale Open Access Mobile Networks Don't Work – GSMA.)

Some operators suggested a hybrid model, where the WOAN receives the bulk of spectrum, but where operators were also given individual spectrum allocations. This seems to be the policy that government has now put forward.

"High demand spectrum may be assigned to a WOAN and the remaining high demand spectrum may be assigned to other electronic communications network service licensees, which spectrum assignment processes must commence simultaneously," the gazette says.

ICASA has now been directed to issue an 'Invitation to Apply,' and accept and consider applications for an individual electronic communications network service license for the WOAN.

The policy direction says the WOAN must be: A consortium of persons, at least 70% owned by South Africans; it must comply with the empowerment requirements of the Electronic Communications Act (ECA); it must include diversity of ownership, including SMMEs and prevent monopolistic behavior; it must also include participation by targeted groups, including women, youth and persons with disabilities; and while it may include public entities as shareholders, the WOAN itself must not be a public entity, under the Public Finance Management Act.

5G forethought
The gazette also touches on the government's plans for the allocation of 5G spectrum, which many hope will happen in 2020.

ICASA has been directed to investigate and report to the minister on the spectrum requirements of 5G in bands lower than 6GHz and the millimeter wave (mmW) bands under study at the 2019 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-19), which takes place between October and November.

"The report should be provided to the Minister within six months after the WRC-19. The investigation should cover the affected bands, the required ecosystem to support 5G in these bands, and the implications of the licensing of these bands on competition and the current structure of the mobile market."

The policy direction says the licensing of the 5G candidate bands will be informed by the report and the minister will then issue a separate policy direction on the 5G candidate bands.

— Paula Gilbert, Editor, Connecting Africa

Innovation hub


Hot startup of the month: Pan-African fintech KamaPay

This month's hot startup is pan-African fintech KamaPay, which helps individuals and businesses make cross-border payments on the continent.


Afretec awards $3.3M in grants to African research teams

The African Engineering and Technology Network (Afretec) has awarded grants worth $300,000 each to 11 university research teams across Africa to advance digital technologies.

More Innovation hub

Latest video

More videos

Sponsored video

More videos

Industry announcements

More Industry announcements

Flash poll

All polls

Africa Tech Perspectives


Deep dive into East Africa's tech startup ecosystem

New survey reveals a lack of access to investors, reliance on international VCs and global recession trends as the biggest barriers for East African tech startups to access funds.


Challenges and opportunities for women's tech careers

A new survey reveals that COVID-19, the cost-of-living crisis, skills shortages and a lack of mentorship have negatively affected women's career development over the past two years.


Survey: Opportunities for Women in Tech

Take our new survey for women across Asia, Europe and Africa looking at the biggest challenges and opportunities for women-led enterprises and trends in tech careers for women.

More AfricaCom perspectives

Upcoming events

London Tech Week
June 13-16, 2023
Queen Elizabeth II Centre, Broad Sanctuary, London SW1P 3EE
Cybertech Africa 2023
August 1-2, 2023
Kigali Convention Center, Kigali, Rwanda
Africa Tech Festival, Home of AfricaCom and AfricaTech
November 13-16, 2023
CTICC, Cape Town
More Upcoming events

Guest Perspectives


Omdia View: February 2023

By Omdia Analysts

In February 2023 key events in the Middle East and Africa included a major Internet project for Africa's underserved by Liquid Intelligent Technologies and Microsoft as well as a 5G launch in Tanzania – that and more in this month's Omdia View.


Omdia View: July 2022

By Omdia Analysts

Kenya and Zambia move towards 5G with new spectrum allocations while Tunisie Telecom plans to shut down its 3G network - that and more in this month's Omdia View.

More Guest Perspectives

Partner perspectives

All Partner Perspectives

Like us on Facebook

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign Up