Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

New rules letting mobile network operators extend broadband services by using idle television frequencies could go a long way towards the government’s plan for affordable internet coverage, experts say.

The Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) has published regulations paving the way for the use of television white space, or unutilised radio frequencies between TV channels.

Mobile operators have long bemoaned the state’s slow allocation of spectrum, which is partially the result of SA’s delayed migration to digital television broadcasting.

MTN supported the regulations, which provided "a significant opportunity to achieve ubiquitous broadband connectivity and the national broadband targets", said Jacqui O’Sullivan, MTN SA’s corporate affairs executive.

"MTN believes that if TV white spaces are regulated in an effective manner — free from interference — it will provide alternative solutions to the current frequency spectrum scarcity environment," O’Sullivan told Business Day.

Vodacom, meanwhile, supported Icasa’s "keenness to embrace innovative technologies like TV white space and dynamic spectrum assignment" but wanted the regulator to prioritise the shift to digital broadcasting, a spokesman for the operator told Business Day.

Large-scale rural deployment

That would free up the 700MHz and 800MHz spectrum bands and would "help contribute to large-scale rural deployment of mobile broadband services".

TV white-space rules could be a "further alternative solution" to extend coverage in rural areas, although Vodacom was cautious about the technology, which has not yet been proven on the global stage. "It might not translate into a technology ecosystem that allows for cost-effective, large-scale rural deployment of related services," the Vodacom spokesman said.

However, Roger Hislop, senior research and development engineer at Internet Solutions, said the regulations could give rise to "much cheaper broadband networks that offer internet connectivity to currently underserviced areas — both semi-urban and rural".

They could also facilitate the development "of an entirely new, entrepreneurial-flavoured industry to install and manage those networks, creating greater choice for consumers", he said.

Hislop said SA’s major mobile network operators might not jump at the opportunity, despite their rural roll-out mandates, as their business models were based on providing premium services using their infrastructure to paying clients. However, independent wireless operators could easily enter the market as set-up costs with TV white-space technologies were low and declining, while they would also not need to pay spectrum licence fees.

"In other words, for TV white-space operators the barriers to entry and operating costs are low. This means that the possibility for an entirely new generation of disruptive network service providers to enter the sector is very real," Hislop said.

Icasa will publish a notice "in due course" to advise on the implementation date of the rules, the regulator’s spokesman, Paseka Maleka, said on Wednesday.

The TV white-space rules will free up unused spectrum within the radio frequency band 470MHz to 694MHz, excluding the radio astronomy sub-band 606MHz to 614MHz. The band is desirable as its frequencies can travel long distances.