On 1 November 2019, the South African communications regulator, ICASA, published a long-awaited Information Memorandum (IM) on the licensing process for the assignment of the International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) spectrum or what is also referred to as high demand spectrum. The IM is ICASA’s first step in initiating the process for the licensing of high demand spectrum and broadly sets out the proposed process for licensing this spectrum as well as inviting stakeholders and potential applicants to make representations on the proposed options.
The IM proposes increasing the total spectrum made available to mobile operators from the current 566MHz to 958MHz. By way of process, ICASA proposes to simultaneously license:
- 60MHz (2x30MHz) in the 700MHz band;
- 60MHz (2x30MHz) in the 800MHz band;
- 40MHz in the 2.3GHz band;
- 170MHz in the 2.6GHz band; and
- 116MHz in the 3.5GHz band.
To this end, ICASA has set out five options for licensing high-demand spectrum within these bands and has asked for industry comment and representations on its proposals. Within each option, the available spectrum has been sorted into a number of Lots, with some Lots assigned towards the wireless open access network (WOAN) and the remaining Lots to be made available to industry. Applicants will be entitled to bid for any of the Lots. The reserve prices for each Lot in the bidding process are still to be determined by ICASA. ICASA is specifically seeking comments on this. ICASA will also introduce spectrum caps and has asked for comments on this as well.
ICASA has proposed to impose a number of obligations on successful licensees which will be conditions of the spectrum licences to be issued. Among other things, those who receive spectrum must:
- provide data services across the country with an average upload of 15Mbit/s and average download of 30Mbit/s across the country by 2025;
- achieve certain coverage targets, including in rural areas, which are still to be determined (certain spectrum lots only);
- provide open access to a minimum of three mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs). These MVNOs must have a minimum of 51% ownership from historically disadvantaged groups; and
- buy a minimum 30% of national capacity from the WOAN for a period of at least five years. Exactly when this obligation will start is unclear.
ICASA has proposed that the auction be conducted by way of a simultaneous multi-round auction (SMRA) with generic spectrum lots. This constitutes an open ascending multi-unit auction that takes place over a number rounds where the price will increase in each round until there are no new bids.
Perhaps the most significant takeaway from the published IM is that ICASA plans to license spectrum suitable for both 4G/LTE and next-generation 5G networks, a move that appears to go against a desire by government to license 5G as part of a separate process as per the Spectrum Policy released in July.