The Black IT Forum said it will drag communications regulator Icasa to court if it doesn’t get an immediate move on with commercialising television white-spaces (TVWS) technology.
“The BITF has resolved to launch an urgent legal process to challenge Icasa’s decision to delay commencement of commercial TVWS in court and expose any individual at Icasa and their external handlers that are using public resources to sabotage progressive transformational government programmes meant to save lives during the Covid-19 disaster period and assist rural economy recovery beyond the Covid-19 period,” the forum said on Wednesday in a strongly worded statement.
TechCentral has established that there is growing anger among prospective TVWS operators and their technology suppliers over what they see as delays by Icasa in allowing the full commercialisation of the technology.
TVWS technology uses the gaps between TV broadcast signals to deliver wireless broadband services at low cost, particularly in rural areas where mobile coverage is either poor or non-existent, or unaffordable for the people living there.
South Africa was an early pioneer in testing TVWS technology, with successful pilot projects that enjoyed the backing of companies such as Google and Microsoft. Icasa was also a pioneer in Africa in developing the necessary regulations to govern the industry.
But now that early work and advantage may be undone, the BITF has warned.
“The unnecessary delays by Icasa in announcing the commencement of commercial TVWS usage in the country is tantamount to the killing of indigenous, locally developed, world-class innovation and technologies that have huge potential to spearhead the fourth Industrial Revolution in South Africa, led by ICT SMMEs,” it said.
“The president (Cyril Ramaphosa), in a recent communique, made it clear that spectrum should urgently be made available to enable the roll-out of broadband network infrastructure to support the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and to serve as a catalyst in reviving the ailing economy and creating employment opportunities. Why is Icasa seemingly sabotaging the president’s efforts?”
The BITF said the latest developments could delay the commercial roll-out of TVWS networks by nine months or more because it wants to “go through a tendering process to get a service provider that will perform the certification of secondary geolocation spectrum database (S-GLSD) providers”. The S-GLSDs are needed to ensure that TVWS providers and other operators don’t interfere with television broadcasts.
An industry insider with knowledge of the latest developments – he asked not to be named, given the sensitivities — told TechCentral on Wednesday that there appears to be a faction inside the regulator that wants to postpone the commercial deployment of TVWS. The source said he couldn’t explain why this might be the case, but he said it’s threatening hundreds of millions of rand of new investment in the telecommunications sector.
“Everyone has put a hell of a lot of time and money into this and now it appears we are at an impasse. Are we wasting our investment? It’s a big worry because there seems to be internal politics at Icasa.”
He described the situation as “exasperating”, saying Icasa doesn’t even need to issue licences to TVWS operators. “You just need Icasa-approved hardware and to conform to the certification that the hardware will work with the geolocation database.”
The problem is there is only one such database available currently. It was developed by the CSIR, which apparently doesn’t want to run it commercially. Rather, it wants to white-label it to other parties, the source said.
“Icasa is not allowing the commercialisation of TVWS to move forward as per the geolocation database framework. It should send out invitations to anyone who wishes to submit a geolocation database for certification for full commercial operation,” he said. “Icasa has created expectations in the industry. All the SMMEs are keen to get going now.”
A source close to Icasa said the regulator is stuck between a rock and a hard place. The source said that with the framework for TVWS now published, the authority needs to start certifying those who will become S-GLSD providers. It can’t use the CSIR because, according to the source, it has plans to play commercially in the TVWS market.
This appears to be why Icasa has gone out on tender for a service provider that can look after the certification of S-GLSD providers. A CSIR official wasn’t immediately able to comment directly on the developments and TechCentral will reach out to the research agency’s media relations office for in-depth comment — look out for a follow-up article in the coming days.
Icasa spokesman Paseka Maleka denied there had been any delays in the process of commercialising TVWS technology. He said Icasa’s annual performance plan requires the process to be completed by 31 March 2021.
“Icasa has been proactive in making this technology available, even though the regulatory framework has not yet been finalised,” Maleka said via e-mail. “A good example of this is Icasa allowing the use of the TVWS technology during the Covid-19 pandemic. Icasa authorised the implementation of TVWS technology in terms of the ICT Covid-19 national disaster regulations published on 6 April 2020. This authorisation is temporary and would be revoked within three months of the termination of the national state of disaster.”
He said Icasa authorised the use of the CSIR’s S-GLSD, which links the TVWS devices with the primary database intelligently without causing interference to television services, but only during the Covid-19 pandemic period. “It was never contemplated that the authorisation granted to the CSIR would extend beyond the period contemplated in terms of the ICT Covid-19 regulations.”
Maleka said, too, that Icasa regards TVWS as an important complementary technology for South Africa, on which has the potential to enable affordable broadband. “Icasa has previously stated and maintains that the regulatory framework designed for dynamic spectrum assignment and opportunistic spectrum management is in the best interests of South Africa’s digital future. The regulations are critical in facilitating universal access to broadband, particularly in rural and underserviced areas.
“On 5 June 2020, the authority published a framework to qualify to operate the S-GLSD for the purposes of providing for a qualification framework for interested entities to operate as S-GLSD service providers. The reason the regulations are not yet in force is because the authority has not qualified any S-GLSD providers.”
“To ensure that the qualification process is possible, the authority intends appointing a service provider for this purpose. Once the process of appointing a service provider is finalised, the authority will publish the commencement date through a notice in the Government Gazette. It is the authority’s intention to publish the commencement date this financial year.
“Icasa is committed to providing a sound and certain TVWS regulatory framework to expand broadband Internet services in South Africa. It is therefore disingenuous to suggest that Icasa is delaying the roll-out of TVWS technologies without a clearer understanding of the regulatory environment. If anything, Icasa has actively pursued and promoted this technology. It is important to note that Icasa is required to operate within the confines of the applicable legislative framework and has embarked on a fair and transparent process for purposes of the speedy implementation of TVWS technology.”
The BITF, in its statement, accused Icasa of delaying tactics to allow “foreign multinationals sufficient time to catch up and negate our proud South African technological lead developed using our hard-earned taxes”. – © 2020 NewsCentral Media