South African Government ICT white paper under fire

cellular-tower-640South Africa’s Government’s radical plan to shake up the way radio frequency spectrum is allocated has been met with universal derision by ICT analysts and experts.

Telecommunications & postal service minister Siyabonga Cwele this week took the wraps off the long-awaited national integrated ICT policy white paper, which proposes sweeping changes to the way the sector is governed and regulated.

Although some aspects of the policy have been welcomed – such as a chapter that will make it quicker for operators to deploy infrastructure by removing red tape – government’s plan for a wireless wholesale open-access network, to which all new spectrum will be allocated, has drawn intense fire.

Not only does government not want to license any more “exclusive-use” spectrum to the mobile operators, it is also threatening to take away the existing spectrum assignments they’ve used to make tens of billions of rand worth of investments in 2G, 3G and 4G networks.

The most radical component of the policy is to have a “monopolistic, price-regulated wholesale mobile network consortium with exclusive access to all the nation’s spectrum”. Commercial operators such as Vodacom and MTN who don’t join the consortium – both have criticised the plan – “will have their lifeblood cut off”, Shinn warned.

Shinn is not alone in slamming the white paper. Dobek Pater, MD of Pretoria-based consultancy Africa Analysis, said government wants to attempt something that “hasn’t really been tested anywhere”.

Although Mexico and Rwanda have embarked on similar strategies – and are the two markets that Cwele has repeatedly referenced as examples that South Africa should follow – the success of those projects has not yet been ascertained.

“We are going to be at the bleeding edge in testing this concept in a country where we don’t have the resources and where we cannot afford the risk,” Pater said. “The test cases are few and far between and are quite inconclusive.”

It is incorrect to draw parallels with Mexico, and indeed what is proposed in South Africa is a world first

Also, neither Mexico nor Rwanda has reserved all unlicensed “high-demand” spectrum (spectrum where demand is greater than supply) for a wholesale network, as South Africa is proposing. These markets still allow for and encourage infrastructure-based competition, said Pater. The few other markets that are toying with the idea, including Russia, appear to have put their plans on the “backburner”.

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