ICASA (Independent Communications Authority of SA) needs to urgently review the way that frequency spectrum is allocated to network operators if South African businesses and consumers are to truly benefit from the liberalisation of the telecoms market.
That's according to Mike Silber, regulatory advisor to the Internet Service Providers' Association of South Africa (ISPA).
He says that spectrum allocation is one of the most crucial issues for ICASA to address following a High Court ruling that effectively turns South Africa into one of the most progressive and competitive telecoms markets in the world and opens the industry to more competition.
"The High Court ruling makes it clear that value-added networks (VANS) have had the right to self-provide their own infrastructure since 2005 under the terms of the Telecommunications Act," says Silber. "Many VANS will receive electronic communications network service (ECNS) licences by January 2009, but these new networks need access to well managed interference-free spectrum if they are to roll out their own high-quality wireless network services, rather than just leasing access on existing networks."
Silber urges ICASA to put a "use it or lose it" regulation in place. The regulator has already warned that it is considering the recall of radio spectrum from operators that are not using it – a development that ISPA has welcomed, he adds.
"One concern for us is that ICASA has stated that 80% of the spectrum has already been 'permanently assigned'. We don't understand why any assignment of spectrum should be considered to be permanent," Silber says.
In Silber's view, a shared spectrum allocation model (also known as "Lite Licencing") is the optimal approach in certain spectrum ranges. This is a proven model which evolved in the US through interaction between wireless network operators (WISPA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
He says Lite Licencing is a novel and progressive frequency allocation model where ECNS licensees would pay a relatively small fee for a nationwide, non-exclusive license. The licencees then pay an additional nominal fee for each base station they deploy. All base stations must be clearly identifiable and in the event that these stations cause interference which cannot be mediated by technical means, licensees are required to resolve the dispute between themselves.
"By allowing participants in the market to share, self-regulate and cooperate on interference mitigation, ICASA can ensure that our national spectrum resources are used efficiently and in a manner benefiting the market. The regulator should support new ECNS operators, for they are the smaller, dynamic and entrepreneurial alternative telecoms providers, in touch with the needs of their local communities."
The ISPA also believes that ICASA needs to keep initial costs such as licencing fees as low as possible to ensure that the barriers to entry are reasonable for new competitors that want to roll out wireless networks.