“Could opening up temporary spectrum to other service providers in South Africa meet the lockdown demand for increased internet bandwidth and deliver more affordable access?”
This was the question posed by Research ICT Africa’s (RIA’s) executive director, Dr. Alison Gillwald to a panel of speakers in a webinar on 4 June 2020 that examined ICASA’s allocation of temporary spectrum to deal with bandwidth congestion, as more people moved their activities online during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Panellists included Mortimer Hope (GH Communications), Tim Genders (WAPA), Dr. Carlos-Rey Moreno (Zenzeleni Community Networks/APC), Alan Knott Craig Jr (Herotel), Steve Song (Network Startup Resource Centre) and Dr. David Johnson (UCT ICT4D Centre, Oceanview Community Network) and Dr. Senka Hadzic (RIA).
COVID-19 has brought the impact of digital inequality on people’s lives into stark relief RIA’s, executive director, Alison Gillwald, said in her opening remarks of this webinar, whilst pointing to the fact that a small elite group of South Africans have moved its businesses and schooling online, while many others are barely able to access essential COVID-19 information due to unaffordable mobile data services.
Addressing this challenge requires doing things differently, including adopting alternative business models and better public-private co-ordination to enable the entry of smaller network service providers, Gillwald said, as she called for more experimentation to deploy low risk policy and regulatory strategies in response to the challenges posed by COVID-19.
However, RIA’s research fellow, Senka Hadzic pointed out that it was essentially the incumbent operators that got the spectrum, such as, Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, Liquid, Rain as well as three TV white space operators.
Mortimer Hope of GH Communications also argued that ICASA missed an opportunity to widen the pool of operators. While Hope was heartened to note that 5G was launched within a few weeks of the spectrum award, he argued that it also contributes to the digital divide South Africa faces because those who have broadband “are getting more and those who don’t, are still without it.”
Tim Genders of the Wireless Access Providers Association (WAPA) also expressed disappointment about ICASA’s focus on big players. WAPA represents 200 members that are smaller players in the wireless network ecosystem who were not allocated spectrum, despite applying for it. Genders argued that ICASA’s policy stands in contrast to, for example, the FCC in America where the approach is to “liberate as much spectrum as you can to as many people as possible” to allow for innovation to take place.
Dr. Carlos-Rey Moreno of Zenzeleni Networks/Association for Progressive Communications argued that radio regulations needed to change. According to Moreno, spectrum is not being used in rural areas where it is most needed. Zenzeleni has also been ignored by big players such as Liquid, Rain and Telkom in its approaches to these companies with a view to spectrum sharing agreements.
Alan Knott Craig Jr of Herotel contended that he didn’t believe in spectrum licensing. “We have a business that is focused on rural South Africa broadband and it’s absolutely fine in terms of just using unlicensed spectrum for the last month,” he said. Knott Craig also called for a cross subsidisation between urban and rural areas, arguing, “There’s a lot more money in the metros and the profits you make out of the metro should be used to subsidise the rural areas.” According to Knott Craig, the unit economic costs of fibre are currently much cheaper, making it a viable solution for underserved areas.
Commenting on ICASA’s release of temporary spectrum, Steve Song (Network Startup Resource Centre) said that while it brought immediate relief to the existing networks that have been overloaded in capacity, it has not reached the unserved. While ICASA has released TV white space spectrum, Song also pointed out that TV white space is a rural backhaul technology that does not reach handsets.
By way of providing a great example of an alternative business model, Dr. David Johnson (UCT ICT4D Centre, Oceanview Community Network), talked about a Wi-Fi mesh network established by a community owned co-operative, which provides zero-rated content, including educational resources such as Khan Academy, TED Talks and Wikepedia, while charging a nominal ZAR20 per GB of data. According to Johnson, all the money remains in the community.
Online moderation support was provided by Pablo Aguera, research fellow at RIA.