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SA government proposes spectrum trading & sharing

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The South African government is proposing spectrum sharing and trading as an option to better manage the country's spectrum resources and help small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) to better participate in the telecoms sector.

This is one of the new proposals in the government's Department of Communications and Digital Technologies' (DCDT's) newly published draft policy on 'Next Generation Radio Frequency Spectrum,' which has been approved by the country's cabinet but which is still open to public comments.

The government is proposing opening up the industry to spectrum trading and spectrum "subletting," or spectrum sharing between licensees – something that has not been allowed in the past – but only with approval from the regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA).

"The Regulator must set standard operating rules, and terms and conditions applicable for trading, sharing, and sub-letting of spectrum," the policy document reads.

"The policy aims to advance long-term public interest from the use of spectrum, which is a finite natural resource, to support the rollout of communications networks for socio-economic development of the country. It further seeks to utilize the spectrum to drive broader and inclusive economic participation and development for all," DCDT Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni said at a press briefing last week about the draft policy.

"The current spectrum regime of South Africa continues to exclude SMMEs and new entrants in the data market in favor of a few market players. Through this policy, we aim to adopt spectrum management approaches that promote SMME participation and emergence of new entrants to the ICT sector," she added.

Spectrum hoarding

Ntshavheni said the spectrum policy also "supports an effective and efficiency in utilization of spectrum resource," adding that "hoarding of spectrum is not permissible."

The policy calls for South Africa's telecoms regulator to put measures in place that prevent hoarding of spectrum, including mechanisms for the implementation of the "use it or lose it" principle. This would mean that licensed spectrum that is unused for a period of more than 24 months would be lost by the license holder.

The government also called for changing the policy from a "right to exclusivity" in spectrum licensing to a "right to protection from interference."

The policy gives ICASA the responsibility to implement spectrum sharing that preserves all the rights of the license holder but, at the same time, unlocks the potential of unused spectrum for sharing.

"The Regulator must provide protection and enforcement to the licensee and ensure that no other users transmit over the same spectrum band in the same geographic (region) without prior authorization."

"The Regulator must put in place a regulatory framework which clarifies spectrum trading rules between licensees, and promotes approaches that prohibits monopolization of spectrum, dominance, and anti-competitive behaviors in the market," the document reads.

2G sunset

Last week, Connecting Africa covered another aspect of the draft policy – the proposal to shut down South Africa's 2G network by June 2024 and a 3G switchoff by March 2025.

"Acknowledging that spectrum is a finite resource, the adoption of more advanced technologies for economic growth must be matched by a deliberate program to retire old technologies to ensure more spectrum is made available for the country to achieve our objective of offering all South Africans high-speed broadband," Ntshavheni added.

The policy also supports the release of a roadmap for 4G and 5G, which will be finalized in consultation with the regulator and local mobile operators.

"This will ensure that citizens – including those in rural and remote areas – are not excluded or left out in the rollout of the latest emerging technologies or networks," the document says.

The department aims to complete the 4G and 5G roadmap December 31, 2022.

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*Top image is of South African Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, at a press briefing in Pretoria on July 7, 2022. (Source: GovernmentZA (GCIS) on Flickr via CC 2.0).

— Paula Gilbert, Editor, Connecting Africa

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