South Africa gets state-owned digital infrastructure company – with new spectrum policy

Communications Minister Khumbudzo Ntsavheni announced that the South African government plans to provide radio frequency spectrum to the State Digital Infrastructure Company.

“We take responsibility for the fact that we cannot leave our fate and the fate of the country in the hands of telecom operators who are guided by commercial considerations,” Ntsavweni said.

“We have, as a department and government, the State Digital Infrastructure Company, which is responsible for ensuring that all South Africans have access to technology.”

Ntsavheni’s statement adds a different perspective to the March 2022 cabinet statement.

On March 10, the Cabinet of Ministers approved an amendment to the Spectrum Policy that removes the requirement to license the National Wholesale Open Access Network (WOAN).

This gave the impression that the government considering postponing his plans for WOAN – a welcome development given that the model has not been proven and failed in Mexico.

However, it now appears that WOAN is simply replacing the State Digital Infrastructure Company (SDIC).

The government is committed merge existing Sentech and Broadband Infraco networks to create SDIC.

The operator will have access to redundant state-funded ICT infrastructure, including the telecommunications networks of Eskom, Sanral, Transnet, Prasa and Sanren.

Answering questions during a media briefing on Friday, Ntsavheni said her department expects to publish the new spectrum policy by the end of July.

Ntsavheni said they were consulting and that the policy would be to provide spectrum for SDIC.

“Subsidiary rules will be adopted for this,” Ntsavheni assured.

RF spectrum is the raw bandwidth of a wireless network that carriers use to communicate between their towers and mobile devices.

WOAN’s idea was to give smaller service providers access to a cellular network infrastructure built by a neutral wholesaler, not Vodacom or MTN.

However, cellular industry experts warn that this is technically impossible.

The government also doesn’t seem to appreciate that carriers such as Vodacom, MTN and Telkom have invested hundreds of billions of rand in their networks since GSM services first launched in South Africa in 1994.

Establishing a sustainable wholesale operator will require an equally significant investment to stay in the South African market.

The deadline for adopting the new spectrum policy is the end of July, coinciding with the ANC’s political conference, which is expected to take place at the same time.

The ruling party released a policy discussion paper ahead of the conference.

It includes a policy for universal broadband access and services, as well as a policy to encourage investment in telecommunications infrastructure. It is stated here:

  • The unallocated spectrum in the middle band should be released in 2024, and the government should urgently develop a policy framework for millimeter-wave spectrum licensing.
  • Industry regulator Icasa should be on the lookout for distortions or changes in the mobile and fixed market that could stifle competition and hamper investment infrastructure.
  • Icasa must implement a spectrum secondary market and provide a regulatory framework to ensure that the resulting transactions do not adversely affect competition.
  • Icasa should introduce rules to allow flexible distribution models between licenses, spectrum pooling, leasing and selling spectrum licenses.
  • 4G mobile technology will be the minimum technology offering in South Africa.
  • There must be an organized deceleration and decommissioning of 2G and 3G technologies.
  • The minister should issue a radio spectrum directive that will encourage sustainable investment in 5G and 6G technologies.
  • South Africa should have a 5G strategy outlining the best options for how the private sector and government can maximize the benefits of ITU’s identified 5G use cases.
  • This 5G strategy should prioritize the deployment of 5G in sub-national government (smart cities) and in specific sectors of the economy such as healthcare, education and manufacturing.

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