South Africa’s wireless open access network delayed

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The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa announced in a media statement on Friday that the licensing of South Africa’s wireless open-access network (WOAN) has been delayed.

The WOAN is a controversial proposal that aims to create a national cellular network that offers services on a wholesale basis.

Retail service providers would then theoretically buy access on this network, and package and sell consumer products to the South African market.

This would be similar in principle to South Africa’s vibrant Internet service provider landscape, where companies buy wholesale access on various fibre networks (and Openserve’s old copper network), and package and resell those services in a consumer-friendly format.

South Africa’s proposal to create a WOAN was met with resistance. Among the criticisms from detractors was that the model was unproven globally. More recently, it has been reported that Mexico’s WOAN experiment has failed dismally, with the WOAN’s operator filing for bankruptcy in July.

After negotiations with the then-Minister of Telecommunications, Siyabonga Cwele, mobile operators and the government reached a compromise.

No longer would all spare radio frequency spectrum be given to the WOAN. A bulk would be set aside for network operators to bid on in an auction.

The mobile networks also committed to buying a significant amount of capacity on the WOAN to help ensure its success.

Radio frequency spectrum is the lifeblood of cellular networks like Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, and Rain.

It is the raw network capacity that enables wireless communication between mobile devices and cellular towers.

The WOAN was set to be licensed along with an auction of sought-after radio frequency spectrum at the beginning of 2021, but the process was derailed by legal action.

Icasa has since committed to auctioning at least some of the high-demand spectrum by March 2022.

At the beginning of October, the regulator said it would publish a consultation document on 19 November for an Invitation to Apply that combines the network operating licence and radio frequency spectrum licences for the WOAN.

This has been delayed to give priority to the spectrum auction.

“Given the sensitivity of the spectrum licensing process and the ongoing consultation processes in that regard, as well as numerous continuous related considerations including legal imperatives, Icasa has resolved to temporarily suspend the timetable relating to the licensing of the WOAN,” the regulator said in a statement.

“This is done to allow the conclusion of the consultation process relating to the permanent licensing of the IMT spectrum thus enabling the Authority to interrogate the impact of the outcomes on the licensing of the WOAN.”

In the intervening period, Icasa said it would speak to other countries to draw lessons from their experiences on licensing a typical WOAN.

“This WOAN licensing process is aimed at introducing an additional credible player with a view to promote competition in the Information and Communication Technology sector for the benefit of all South Africans,” said Icasa chair Keabetswe Modimoeng.

“Therefore, it is very important to enhance our knowledge and develop a holistic approach to the WOAN process. Such additional engagements will provide a clearer guidance in terms of how effective and economical this licensing process will be.”

Based on the outcomes of these further engagements and subsequent analysis, coupled with the IMT spectrum consultation processes (where applicable), Icasa said it will publish a notice advising of the process to be followed no later than March 2022.

The table below summarises the key activities Icasa had identified for the licensing of the WOAN and their originally envisaged dates.

WOAN licensing timetable
Key activitiesEnvisaged datesNew dates
Commencement of process to reconsider the composite ITA for an individual electronic communications network services (I-ECNS) and Radio Frequency Spectrum Licence to operate a Wireless Open Access Network (WOAN)1 October 2021Unchanged
Notice advising process to be followedMarch 2022
Publication of a consultation document in respect of the draft amended composite ITA for I-ECNS and Radio Frequency Spectrum Licences to operate a WOAN19 November 2021N/A
Closing date for receiving written representations on the consultation document regarding the composite ITA for I-ECNS and Radio Frequency Spectrum Licences to operate a WOAN.10 January 2022N/A
Publication of amended composite ITA for I-ECNS and Radio Frequency Spectrum Licences to operate a WOAN.14 February 2022N/A
Public Workshops on the amended composite ITA for I- ECNS and Radio Frequency Spectrum Licences to operate a WOAN15 March 2022N/A
Closing date for receiving applications in response to the composite ITA for I-ECNS and Radio Frequency Spectrum Licences to operate a WOAN.13 May 2022N/A

Now read: South Africa’s cellular networks must reapply for temporary spectrum

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