Open Spectrum

At a Glance:
What is it? The Open Spectrum Alliance (OSA) is a multi-disciplinary grouping of parties with a shared interest in working towards greater efficiency in the allocation, assignment and use of radio frequency spectrum in South Africa.
  • established the Open Spectrum Alliance in South Africa
  • brought leading edge expertise in spectrum auctions to ICASA consultation on 2.6GHz and 3.5MHz auctions
  • brokered funding for a multi-country survey of spectrum management in South Africa, Brazil, India, Kenya, Nigeria, and Morocco
  • provided training on spectrum issues to the South African Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications
What I’ve been saying Blog posts:

What others are saying
What’s coming in 2010?
  • a survey of spectrum management in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Morocco, Brazil, and India
  • a targeted campaign for specific blocks of spectrum to be opened up
Where to find out more Visit the Open Spectrum Alliance website or join the community

Communication technologies growing ever more powerful but they are decreasing in cost at the same time. Nowhere is this more true than in the area of wireless communication technologies. The remarkable advances of mobile and wireless broadband technology in the last 10 years has eclipsed all expectations.

Unfortunately, policy regulating the use of wireless spectrum has not kept pace with the evolution of wireless technology. In fact, in most countries, spectrum policy and regulation has not changed much since it was conceived in the late 1920s. Spectrum, as conceived of then, was a finite yet abundant resource and the policy and regulation created then reflected that understanding.

In the same way Internet IP address assignment has evolved to be more efficient, we need a new way of thinking about spectrum assignment models.

Things have changed. Thanks to the growth of mobile and broadband networks, demand for spectrum has shot up giving spectrum the appearance of being a scarce resource. Yet at the same time, wireless technology has evolved to the point where spectrum, while not an infinite resource, is a much more flexible, extensible, shareable resource than previously conceived. Data modulation and antenna design advances now allow us to pack much more data in the same spectrum.

Around the world, there is an opportunity to open up access to all by creating spectrum policy that embraces the rapidly evolving nature of wireless technology and which lowers the barrier to participation and innovation, much like the Internet has created a trend towards greater transparency, decentralisation and democratisation.

Evidence from North America and Europe suggests that even in urban areas, not much more than 10% of spectrum is in use.

Why Open Spectrum in Africa? Why now?

Open Spectrum represents a particular opportunity for South Africa. After years of restrictive telecom regulation, the landmark Altech decision in late 2008 opened up the telecom market to competition from potenially hundreds of service providers. Yet, in order to deploy telecom infrastructure, one must either have the resources to deploy physical (copper or fibre) connectivity or access to radio spectrum to deploy wireless infrastructure.

Access to spectrum in South Africa now represents the single biggest obstacle to competitive participation in the telecoms marketplace. And if 10% of the available spectrum is in use in North America and Europe, one can reasonably suppose that even less spectrum is currently in use in South Africa.

This represents an opportunity for South Africa to radically change the connectivity landscape by allowing innovative wireless solutions to spur competition and to deliver affordable access where it was previously impractical.

What Do We Mean by “Open Spectrum”?

Wireless spectrum represents both an extremely valuable and yet critically underutilised national resource in South Africa. There is a need for policy and regulation of this resource that can bring about equity of access and of opportunity as well as efficient use of spectrum bands. The goal of Open Spectrum is to create an environment in which the cost and barriers to spectrum use are as low as possible while ensuring that spectrum users do not suffer from interference from other users. Here are some basic principles of Open Spectrum:


Before one can begin to talk about Open Spectrum, a fundamental prerequisite is transparency: transparency around the existing use and proposed allocation and assignment of spectrum in South Africa. This includes:

  • ensuring that any allocation and assignment of spectrum is open to public scrutiny
  • ensuring that spectrum auctions are undertaken according to international best practice
  • ensuring that regular audits are made of spectrum use to confirm spectrum band use


At the moment there are two opposite poles in spectrum allocation thinking. Licensed for exclusive use and free for all. We need some middle ground. Interference free spectrum, efficiency shared to reduce barriers to entry.

Technology Neutrality

We do not believe that spectrum should be tied to a technology. Technology is evolving faster than regulation and forcing providers to only use spectrum assignments with a specific technology does not make sense.

Listen to the users

The needs of urban and rural areas are different and this should be reflected in the regulation that governs spectrum. We need to make sure the correct power limits apply to the correct use. Higher EIRP for directional links make sense.

Use it or lose it

In order to stimulate innovation and promote efficient use spectrum allocation and assignment must be more dynamic. There is no in any entity sitting unused spectrum for extended periods of time.

Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Efficiency

For the telecommunications sector in South Africa to achieve its full potential and for low-cost access for all to become a reality, the market must be open to innovative start-ups as well as large corporations with deep pockets. Changing the way spectrum is allocated and managed can open up opportunities for small entrepreneurs and large investors alike. Some examples of innovative spectrum licensing are:

  • Opportunistic Spectrum Re-Use and tracking
    • using smart technologies like GIS, online databases and Cognitive Radio that can sense un-used spectrum and move dynamically to take advantage of it
    • example: Television White Spaces
  • Lite Licensing
    • requirement to license a transmitter but no primary or exclusive use of spectrum band
    • example : 802.11y
    • “Lite Licensing” is a novel and progressive frequency allocation and assignment model where licensees pay a relatively small fee for a nationwide, non-exclusive license. The licensees then pay an additional nominal fee for each base station they deploy. All base stations must be clearly identifiable and in the event that these stations cause interference which cannot be mediated by technical means and licensees are required to resolve the dispute between themselves.
  • License Exempt Spectrum
    • spectrum use regulated through control of technical specifications of devices rather than spectrum use
    • example: WiFi and others
  • Primary and Secondary Shared Use
    • spectrum shared based on power emissions of devices
    • example: Ultra Wide Band


We need to educate more people about spectrum as a national resource and the opportunities that emerge from a new way of thinking about spectrum allocation and assignment.


  • Patrick

    The fact is that because radio engineering has now fully developed wide-band systems such as WCDMA, 802.11n and other spread-spectrum modes of modulation, as well as the now freely available hard encryption technologies, regulators are actually so under-resourced and critically lacking in capacity, that it is not a surprise that their policy towards spectrum remains in the last century. The wide-band radio systems not only lend them-selves to effective use of limited spectrum, but also are very robust against detection and jamming, this is the reason that spread-spectrum systems were only used by the military for so many years. This fact in turn means that detection and control of un-licenced systems is very challenging, especially were high-level encryption is used.

    Historically Radio spectrum has mostly been regarded as strategic and requiring strict control. Only in recent times has the actual value of a megahertz of radio band-width been realised, and governments have been able to auction spectrum licenses to the Cellphone providers for very high sums who, in turn seek to profit from their exclusive use.

    The topography of our communications networks, (be it internet or cellphone) is designed quite specifically to ensure revenues flow towards the owners and re-sellers of those networks, their business models are formulated around affordablity of thoses services to the greater portion of the public. It’s a pure capitalist system.

    In South Africa, it’s those telecoms companies (and their share-holders) who pay for spectrum you would be up against. Every time they see a threat to their business, as you would expect, they will fight hard to protect their interests. Mobile VIOP is a case in point, where providers are busy trying to block hand-sets with VIOP (Skype etc).

    So you have an ex-paramilitary government in bed with big business to convince that the radio spectrum belongs to us all!

    It reminds me of the 1970’s when CB radio became a fad. In the UK, there were even street protests to legalise CB radio. Interestingly it worked, and CB was made legal in the UK 1981. It sparked a whole scene of folk communicating locally and it was a significant liberty to be able to have free access to radio spectrum. Today CB technically still exists as well low-powered license-free walike-talkies, these voice-only but “free” modes of communications are actually very under-utilised probably because of the success of the marketing departments of the big cellphone companies and that walkie-talkie technology falls far short of Iphone as far as most consumers see it.

    The network topography can be challenged with so-called mesh networks, but such a high degree of social co-operation is needed for this to work, and even the commercial wireless providers are making use of mesh to expand their own networks!(Wimax)

    When you consider how resistant developing communities are to “hand-out” type technologies (look at solar hot water in the townships) it’s hard to see a way forward.

    Your average person in S.A. doesn’t have a clue what radio spectrum is, and those that do are most interested in controlling it or selling it rather that sharing it. The argument being, gold to is a resource, so should we be sharing that to?

    In the future, ultra wide band cognitive radio will be the order of the day, technologically it’s interesting and exciting, the flip side to that, how will it be controlled policed etc?… more wide-band noise, chrips and jamming?, equipment licensing?

    I’m off to my local made-in-china computer store to pick another $5 TV tuner dongle…, where’s my TV license 😉

  • Steve Song

    Well said. I think there are lots of issues that no one cared about e.g. recycling et al that sufficient consumer pressure brought about changes in behaviour and political action. We just need more people like you speaking out publicly. 🙂

  • Bern

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if SA could take the lead in this field and use the reallocation of spectrum to reinvent the entire process for wideband cognitive technologies! Maybe with enough pressure from promises made on broadband for all by 2020 we might see a glimmer of hope.