Article by CyberBRICS Fellow Dr Senka Hadzic
South Africa’s telecommunications sector has transitioned from a state-owned monopoly to a more competitive environment over the past 25 years, with mobile communications and broadband access playing a crucial role in the country’s socioeconomic development. While broadband infrastructure has improved over the years, there are still challenges in terms of access, affordability, availability, and quality of service, particularly in rural and remote areas. Even though the share of South Africans using the Internet has increased significantly, from 49% in 2018 to 76% in 2022, the main barrier for those already online to use the Internet more, is overwhelmingly the high cost of data. With the majority accessing the Internet through mobile broadband, it is clear that wireless networks play a critical role in the provision of ICT services in the country. Spectrum, which refers to the radio frequencies used for wireless communication, is a critical enabler for the expansion and improvement of wireless networks.
Ongoing regulatory efforts aim at bridging the digital divide and ensure that all South Africans can benefit from the opportunities offered by modern telecommunications services. Spectrum policies, which are the rules and regulations governing the allocation and use of spectrum, ideally evolve as technology and communication needs evolve.
On 31 March 2023, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) issued a discussion document on dynamic spectrum access and opportunistic spectrum management. A new regulatory framework for spectrum sharing is essential for expanding affordable connectivity, which, again, is essential for transforming the country into a modern digital information society driven by innovation and the knowledge economy, as set out in the National Development Plan (NDP). In line with the NDP, the broadband strategy SA Connect has set-out incremental broadband connectivity targets to bridge the digital inclusion gap, and ensure universal access to broadband services by 2030.
Purpose of the document
The purpose of the document is to solicit feedback and comments from stakeholders and interested parties regarding the implementation of Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) in the S and C bands in South Africa. The idea is to extend dynamic spectrum sharing management techniques to bands other than those used for broadcasting – so called television white space (TVWS) spectrum. This step is a logical extension of the work done by ICASA with regards to TVWS regulation: a discussion document from 2015 led to the formulation of regulations on the use of TV White Spaces, published in 2018. The term “white space” refers to portions of spectrum allocated to a broadcasting service (as primary user) but not used locally. Allowing secondary users to access available spectrum results in more efficient overall spectrum utilisation. An obvious requirement is that these secondary transmissions do not interfere with the assigned use of the spectrum. TVWS spectrum regulation in South Africa allows secondary users to access channels in the 470–694 MHz band if a geolocation spectrum database (GLSD) authorises the use of a set of channels for a secondary user. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) led the development of the first TVWS spectrum database in Africa. The database is certified by the UK regulator Ofcom and now used by the national regulator as the reference TVWS database.
The potential of the TVWS spectrum has been particularly identified as a solution for last mile access and middle-mile connectivity to the Internet backbone. ICASA’s discussion document states that since the TVWS regulations have been published, various network operators have been using the spectrum to provide affordable broadband services in underserved and unserved rural and township areas. However, there is very little information available about these initiatives.
This new proposal could enable mobile operators to to engage in secondary market transactions and trade spectrum without waiting for rare and periodic auctions. Allowing secondary market transactions provides a more flexible mechanism for mobile operators to acquire spectrum, and enables service providers to respond more quickly to changes in demand for wireless services.
In the same week of ICASA’s announcement, UK regulator Ofcom released a discussion paper on opportunities for dynamic or adaptive approaches to managing spectrum in the UK, motivated by their own TV White Spaces framework and the opening up of the CBRS band in the United States, which have both demonstrated the potential of more dynamic approaches. Ofcom has generally been one of the most innovative spectrum regulators. For example, their approach to local spectrum licences aims to address the issue where spectrum is licensed on a national basis and not being used in every location – in this case, new users should be allowed to use this spectrum, for example for private networks. Ofcom is already working on a collaborative programme together with industry, to establish ‘spectrum sandboxes’, to trial some of these innovative approaches.
DSS has already been successfully implemented in other countries: in the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has implemented a DSS framework known as the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), which allows for shared access to the 3.5 GHz band by different users. The CBRS has been successful in enabling new services and improving spectrum utilisation: Seattle community network is community-run cellular (4G LTE) network and has been successfully operating in the CBRS spectrum.
How will this benefit to connect the unconnected?
The implementation of DSS in the proposed bands would change the current status quo of spectrum assignment in South Africa. DSS allows for dynamic and flexible sharing of spectrum resources, which can greatly improve spectrum utilisation efficiency and enable new innovative applications and services – including those designed specifically to connect the unconnected.
Developing inclusive policy and regulatory strategies requires recognizing the demand-side value of resource allocation, including wireless spectrum. Spectrum auctions, while often resulting in windfall revenues for the government, can have negative consequences such as reduced network roll-out and higher consumer prices, resulting in lower consumer welfare.
Conversely, the escalating costs associated with exclusive-use, licensed spectrum, particularly through spectrum auctions, pose significant barriers to market entry, with consumers ultimately bearing the brunt of high spectrum prices. Mitigating the impact of excessive fees through spectrum auctions can be seen as a crucial step to prevent negative outcomes and foster a conducive regulatory environment for the growth of the telecommunications sector.
ICASA’s initiatives related to DSS have the potential to bring significant benefits to South Africa’s telecommunications landscape. By enabling more efficient and flexible use of spectrum resources, DSS can address spectrum scarcity, foster innovation, lower the entry barrier and promote competition in the telecommunications sector.