The battle over South Africa’s wireless broadband spectrum auction highlights significant government policy missteps, said local technology analyst Arthur Goldstuck.
Debate over a planned wireless broadband spectrum by communications regulator Icasa has split the local telecommunications industry.
Telecoms & postal services minister Siyabonga Cwele on Monday announced his plan to sue Icasa over the auction, which is intended to sell frequencies for faster 4G/LTE mobile Internet.
Icasa invited bidders to apply for the planned January 2017 auction despite government not yet establishing a policy direction on spectrum, said Cwele.
Cwele further accused Icasa of allegedly failing to adhere to legislation and regulations in launching the auction.
Meanwhile, Goldstuck said that both Cwele and Icasa could be in the wrong.
“In this case, both parties appear to be in the wrong. Icasa is required to await policy direction from the minister,” Goldstuck said.
“If procedures haven’t been followed, then they have to go back to the drawing board. While this could reflect poorly on Icasa, it is time we recognised the fact that the entire structure of telecoms policy in South Africa is dysfunctional.
“However, when no such direction is forthcoming, in an area that has been neglected for many years, it is not surprising to see the regulator wanting to do something,” Goldstuck said.
The saga has split the local telecoms sector into “for” and “against” camps regarding how and when spectrum is auctioned off.
South Africa’s biggest mobile network, Vodacom, last week praised Icasa for the planned wireless broadband spectrum auction, calling it a “major progressive step for the economy”.
But the number three network, Cell C, said on Tuesday that the auction, in its current state, is only set to benefit companies with deep pockets and entrench the “Vodacom-MTN duopoly”.
Cell C also said the auction needs government buy-in, which it currently lacks.
However, the Democratic Alliance said on Tuesday that Cwele should refrain from his legal threat.
“Icasa’s bold step to issue the invitation to prospective bidders came after 10 years of dithering on the spectrum policy by successive ANC communications ministers,” said DA MP Marian Shinn.
Icasa on Tuesday said that it followed the law regarding its invite for bidders to take part in the spectrum auction.
The spectrum auction battle comes amid a similar fight around South Africa’s digital migration project, which is expected to free up SABC analogue frequencies for high-speed broadband.
Over the years, legal battles have dogged the digital migration process as broadcasters and government have fought over issues such as control mechanisms for digital TV set-top boxes.
Altogether, the spectrum auction fight and the digital migration delays paint a picture of broken policies, said Goldstuck.
“Lack of consensus in the industry plays into the hands of those who would like to see digital migration and its many spin-offs delayed, or who want to see the current administration fail,” said Goldstuck.
“In truth, the ills of telecoms in South Africa today are the bitter fruit we are reaping from sowing seeds of disinterest, incompatibility and unworkable policy for almost a decade now,” he said.