It’s time to get down to business and start developing a civil society position on spectrum management in South Africa. The key purpose of spectrum management is to maximise the value that society gains from the radio spectrum. That has traditionally been done in a command-and-control manner treating spectrum as a completely finite, scarce resource. But things are changing.
The recent ruling in South Africa which effectively opened up the telecoms market to full competition, now sadly being appealed by the Department of Communications (DoC), got me thinking about “what next”. Suppose that the DoC come to its senses and abandons the appeal or perhaps a sensible judge throws the appeal out, what next? The regulator (ICASA) have a huge number of issues to address ranging from interconnection to local loop unbundling. But for me, one issue stands out after the Altech ruling and that is spectrum management. For many service providers, having an i-ECNS license will not be very meaningful if they are unable to get access to spectrum.
Given that ICASA seem unlikely to address spectrum management for at least another year, thanks to other pressing priorities, now seems like the perfect time to mobilise debate within civil society on what principles we would like to see enshrined in spectrum regulation. Certainly, there are a few issues that come to mind.
Given the level of cronyism that has characterised the SA telecoms market in the last 15 years, embedding transparency mechanisms into spectrum regulation is a highly attractive proposition but not one that is by any means a given. Building on Paul Collier’s premise that Open Standards might lead to better practice, it would be worth exploring what sorts of standards might be proposed to ICASA to ensure a fully transparent process in the allocation of spectrum.
Readiness for a Different World
As radio and computing technology continue to rapidly evolve, our ability to make more and more efficient use of spectrum increases. Policy and regulation need to be developed so as to allow as many of the highest value users access as possible. As technology will continually move this goalpost, regulation needs reflect this shifting environment.
Open Spectrum and Innovation
Unlicensed spectrum, in particular the 2.4 and 5Mhz bands have proven to be magnets for innovation. Initially declared unlicensed because they were ‘garbage’ spectrum unsuitable for broadcast, they have been instrumental in enabling powerful and most importantly unpredictable innovations. The ubiquity of WiFi in computing devices could not have happened were in not for the fact that everyone is permitted to experiment in this bandwidth. Creating more open spectrum can only stimulate further innovation. The Wireless Innovation Alliance championed by Google and Microsoft in the United States is an attempt to have more bandwidth set aside as open. The debate in this area has been heated. Now is the time to start looking at such issues in South Africa before they get captured by vested interests.
For those of you new to the “White Spaces” debate, here is a link that I picked up from Sascha Meinrath’s blog to a video produced by the People Production House in New York. It’s a lovely introduction to the pro side of the white spaces debate.
If you’re interested in getting involved in such a debate in South Africa, I’d love to hear from you.