Instead of taking away oversight and management of South Africa’s radio frequency spectrum from the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) and centralising it in the office of the minister of communications, government should be trying to assist the authority to better perform its tasks.
That’s the view of Alison Gillwald, executive director of research at ICT Africa and adjunct professor at the University of Cape Town’s GSB Infrastructure Reform and Regulation Programme. She was reacting to planned amendments to the 2005 Electronic Communications Act, which would take away control over spectrum from Icasa and hand it to the communications minister.
Gillwald says telecommunications reform worldwide in the past two decades has generally resulted in management of spectrum being delegated to regulators.
“Generally, where ministries — such as those in Canada and India — retain management functions, these are very often long-standing arrangements and they have a sizeable staff able to undertake this increasingly significant function.”
She says those countries where powers are delegated to regulatory agencies or, in some instances, dedicated agencies, tend to have undertaken more extensive reforms, have more competitive markets and acknowledge the need for a swift response to rapidly changing technology.
“Like many other areas of regulatory reform, the purpose for the delegation of powers in relation to spectrum reflects an acknowledgment of the need for the government as policy maker to be arm’s length from the assignment of spectrum to individual players, particularly if it continues to have interests in the sector.”
SA’s government continues to have interests in the sector, including in Telkom and Sentech. The latter is sitting idly on 50MHz of highly coveted spectrum in the 2.6GHz band, a band that private-sector operators want access to in order to provide next-generation wireless services.
“As spectrum becomes more critical and valuable to the offering of high-speed, mobile and bandwidth-intensive services, the removal of any conflicts of interest in the institutional arrangement is critical”, Gillwald says.
‘Stick to the logic’
She says government “cannot be seen to be determining not only the wider policy conditions under which its competitors operate but also the day-to-day management of their spectrum”. If government had no interests in the sector “in line with global reform trends”, the attempt to “claw back powers of spectrum management” from Icasa might not be as concerning.
“Though Icasa has not demonstrated the ability to optimise spectrum usage for the expansion of services, there is little to suggest the department has the capacity to do any better,” she adds.
Gillwald says it makes more sense to “stick with the logic and principles of independent and impartial administration of the spectrum to avoid it being subject to political interests, electoral cycles and the like”.
She asks whether government shouldn’t, instead, focus on getting Icasa to do the job properly. — TechCentral