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Picture: 123RF/KANTVER
Picture: 123RF/KANTVER

SA’s telecom regulator is looking to increase access to 5G communication services by releasing a new batch of radio frequency spectrum that can be shared between operators, signalling a major shift from present local market deployment practices.

After investigating the future trajectory of the telecom market, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) is preparing to introduce dynamic spectrum access (DSA) and an opportunistic spectrum management framework.

This will be for two 5G frequency bands: 3,800 to 4,200MHz and 5,925 to 6,425MHz, Icasa said in the Government Gazette recently.

DSA is a technique to improve efficiency in using radio frequencies on which data is transmitted.

To use an analogy, radio waves can be visualised as lanes on a highway. In the conventional spectrum allocation, specific frequencies, or lanes, are designated for specific uses such as TV or radio broadcasting and cellphone calls.

The problem is that some frequencies are not constantly in use, such as TV channels at night. DSA allows other devices to use temporarily unused lanes, allowing for sharing of spectrum assets. The technology works to find underutilised frequencies and lets devices use them without interfering with existing users. In SA, the issue of clogged spectrum bands is especially pertinent. In March 2022, Icasa achieved a milestone in finalising a spectrum auction generating R14bn for the government.

However, some of the spectrum sold is still occupied by broadcasters, which still need to transition from analogue to digital TV as part of the digital migration process.

Future growth

The authority has invited players in the sector to make written submissions on the technical information of stations operating in the earmarked frequency ranges.

This development comes at a time when SA’s telecom operators are also embracing the shift towards sharing network infrastructure.

In its annual earnings report, released last week, Telkom hinted at this, saying: “Future growth for the group will be facilitated by efficient deployment of capex for our Mobile business, exploring radio access network sharing with other mobile network operators, enabling us to capture high-traffic activity while keeping capex at manageable levels.”

According to the International Telecommunications Union, there are two basic categories of mobile infrastructure sharing: passive and active.

Passive refers to the sharing of physical space, for example buildings, sites and masts, where networks remain separate. In SA, this type of sharing is well established with Telkom, Vodacom and MTN occupying many of the same cellphone tower sites.

In active sharing, “elements of the active layer of a mobile network are shared, such as antennas, entire base stations or even elements of the core network”. Active sharing includes mobile roaming, which enables an operator to make use of another’s network in a place where it has no coverage or infrastructure of its own.

Internet service providers such as Cool Ideas or Afrihost, for example, make use of fibre networks from the likes of Vumatel, Telkom’s Openserve and Metrofibre.

In mobile, Telkom and Cell C have roaming agreements in place with Vodacom and MTN to use their network infrastructure in areas where they do not have their own.

DSA would move the industry towards even greater sharing, now on the spectrum level.

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