Siyabonga Cwele. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Siyabonga Cwele. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

The Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) has criticised the information and communications (ICT) policy white paper, saying it could hamper efforts to reduce the cost to communicate.

Icasa said on Wednesday the white paper made it onerous for operators to access spectrum, which made it harder for them to reduce operating costs.

In May Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel announced that SA’s high data costs would be investigated by the Competition Commission.

Icasa is reviewing the broadband market and has said the reduction in the cost of data would depend on the outcome of the review.

The delay in the migration from analogue to digital broadcasting had also frustrated players in the ICT sector who were desperate for additional spectrum, Icasa said.

Digital migration is crucial for freeing up spectrum, which will boost connectivity and efforts to reduce data costs.

The regulator briefed the select committee on communications and public enterprises about efforts being made to reduce the cost to communicate and on the reluctance of cellphone operators to comply with licence conditions.

The lack of spectrum had resulted in operators deploying mini base stations to cater for the growing demand for data in far-flung areas, Icasa said.

This meant operators had to invest in infrastructure, the costs of which they passed on to consumers. However, the regulator said, there was no justification for operators to charge higher out-of-bundle prices.

Icasa acting chairman Rubben Mohlaloga said other countries were licensing spectrum and this had helped cut costs, while "here that sort of thing is not happening".

"There are things contained in the [white paper] which are inconsistent with the law and the aim of the broader policy, which is to drive investment," said Mohlaloga.

The government’s national integrated ICT policy white paper, published in September 2016, proposes, among other things, that spectrum allocated to cellphone operators be recovered and a ban be placed on the trading of frequencies in popular bands.

A key proposal was that spectrum be pooled and made available to a new wholesale open-access network operator to be owned by any licensee interested in participating as an investor and shareholder.

However, Telecommunications and Postal Services Minister Siyabonga Cwele said recently there was no urgency to force operators to return the spectrum until the end of the current licence period. This was to ensure investment certainty.

Cwele said an open-access spectrum model would be key in driving down the cost of communicating in SA by facilitating the entrance of more players.

In 2016, the minister succeeded in a court bid to halt a planned radio frequency spectrum auction process by Icasa.

Cwele opposed Icasa’s auction, saying the regulator should have waited until the department had finalised its ICT policy white paper before calling on operators to bid for spectrum.

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