Battle for spectrum in SA

Broadcasters and mobile operators have responded to the second draft of Icasa’s National Radio Frequency Plan, with the former fighting against a move to kick them off their licensed spectrum prematurely.

On 21 December 2012, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) published a draft update of the National Radio Frequency Plan (NRFP) and asked all spectrum holders to submit comment by 15 February 2013.

The National Radio Frequency Plan, drafted by Icasa, shows the full range of spectrum bands and what they can be used for in South Africa.

The main point of contention brought up in the plan commentary surrounds the valuable Digital Dividend 1 (790MHz–862MHz) and Digital Dividend 2 (694MHz–790MHz) frequencies, which are set to become available when South Africa completes its migration from analogue to digital broadcasting.

These 700MHz and 800MHz bands are currently occupied by terrestrial broadcasting services and Icasa has said that they will be vacated by 2015.

However, in response to the second draft of the plan, broadcasters – namely, e-tv, Mnet, Orbicom and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) – have voiced their opposition to Icasa’s intent to kick them off of the 700MHz band by 2015.

Dina Pule Digital TV
Digital TV migration

Broadcasters bite back

According to Icasa, the ITU allocated the 700MHz frequency band to mobile and designated to International Mobile Telecommunication (IMT) in a World Radiocommunication Conference 2012 (WRC-12) footnote.

Icasa’s plan indicates that the allocation of this frequency band to IMT will be effective immediately after WRC-12, in accordance with the ITU.

According to broadcasters, however, Icasa’s move to kick them off the frequency is premature and contrary to the ITU footnote, which stipulates that the allocation to IMT is only effective after 2015.

Instead, they said, the frequency is to be shared by broadcasters and mobile between 2012 and 2015 while the ITU studies the spectrum requirements for the mobile and broadcasting services in the frequency band.

“It appears as if ICASA intends to unilaterally, and in the absence of proper studies, force the migration of broadcasters out of the 700MHz frequency band,” the NAB said in its comment.

Broadcasters also criticised Icasa’s plan for not addressing the issue of compensation to broadcasters who migrate from the specified frequencies.

“It appears that the Authority’s expectation is that broadcasters will migrate out of particular bands, cover all of the direct costs and absorb the revenue losses which result from migration, return licensed spectrum to the Authority after the migration is complete – and do all this without any compensation whatsoever,” Mnet said in its comment.

Mnet noted further that there was no guarantee for migrating broadcasters that adequate spectrum would be available to them in return.

“This proposal is clearly prejeduicial to affected broadcasting licensees,” it said.

Mobile operators happy

Vodacom and MTN both acknowledged the error on Icasa’s part pertaining the WRC-12 footnote – but weren’t at all vocal in opposition to it.

MTN held the view that the entire 694-790 MHz range should be cleared of all existing users, moving the broadcasters to frequencies below 694MHz.

MTN said it was aware that the ITU is in the process of defining an appropriate channel plan for the 700MHz spectrum range – but the plan provided Icasa with the opportunity to implement the DD1 and DD2 migration simultaneously.

Cell C and Telkom did not comment directly on the contested spectrum range, but noted and welcomed other revisions to the document.

South Africa’s network providers were generally satisfied with the latest draft of the plans, though they supported Icasa’s intentions to revise them on an annual basis.

Eskom wants a slice of the pie

Adding to the demand for spectrum, Eskom has also indicated that it wants a bigger slice of the spectrum pie for use in its “smart grid” deployment in the country.

This includes two 10 MHz channels in the valuable 800 MHz band, after the digital TV switchover – over a quarter of the spectrum range (28%) – as well as in the 1.4/1.5 GHz bands.

“Spectrum is required for connectivity to various elements of the national electricity grid to Eskom’s national fibre optic and microwave network,” Eskom said.

“The point to multipoint radio access network has to be deployed in dense urban areas along transmission lines and in rural areas at the edge of the network.”

“Thus, spectrum is required below 1GHz to cover distances in rural areas, and above 1GHz for dense urban areas,” it said.

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Battle for spectrum in SA