Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

The government has proposed, in its Information and Communication Technology White Paper, to turn unused radio spectrum into a "wireless open-access network" and to take back spectrum allocations from mobile operators.

This will essentially nationalise the spectrum needed to provide data services. The decision has shocked telecommunications companies and industry experts, who say it will prevent future investment in new technologies and goes against the proven policy of selling spectrum to operators.

Spectrum policy is often technical and dry, but it is a critical resource. Making the right decisions will have a profound impact on all South Africans. It will determine whether we will have access to the data transmission speeds that modern mobile applications require — and whether we will be able to afford them.

The term "spectrum" refers to different radio frequency ranges or bands used for wireless communication. Besides mobile voice and data transmission, applications include maritime radio and navigational aids, amateur radio, sound broadcasts, distress signalling, aeronautical applications and radio astronomy.

Other applications range from remote controls for cars, gates and garage doors to radio-controlled vehicles, motion sensors, geophysical sensing, medical devices, satellite communication, wireless microphones, cordless telephones, Wi-Fi networks, television broadcasts, telemetry applications, radio-frequency identification, radar and a range of government, police and military applications.

All these transmissions and more need to co-exist on a spectrum ranging from several kilohertz to many gigahertz.

For example, traditional GSM, used by cellphone companies, uses two main bands, between 900MHz and 960MHz, and between 1.7GHz and 1.9GHz. Below, between and above these bands, many other companies and government entities operate many other services.

Spectrum regulation is complicated but it is not
unlike land.

Like radio spectrum, land is a limited resource. Laws and regulations protect ownership of land and limit what you are allowed to do on it. On some plots you may farm, on others you may build residential buildings; still other land is reserved for commercial or industrial use.

Some plots are small, while farms and some industrial properties can be very large. Great swathes of land are owned by local, provincial or national government, for various good and not so
good reasons.

There are laws that can be used to prevent others from trespassing on land and making it unusable for its intended purpose. Within broad zoning guidelines, however, it is up to the
private owners of land to use it most efficiently.

The same is true for radio spectrum. A spectrum licence is analogous to a title deed. It specifies for what purposes the spectrum may be used, whether it is exclusive or needs to be shared with others and how powerful transmissions are allowed to be to prevent interference with other users on the same or nearby frequencies.

Mobile operators have invested billions in the technology to make the most efficient use of the spectrum they have been allocated. In fact, the privately owned frequencies mobile operators use are the most efficiently and fully utilised bands on the entire radio spectrum. GSM and 3G services cover 99% of SA’s population. By contrast, many government-owned entities, such as Armscor, Denel, Transnet and Eskom, operate in different bands but serve far fewer people far less effectively simply because there is no real competitive pressure to fully use the available bandwidth.

Unlike privately owned spectrum, wireless open-access networks on government-owned spectrum have not ever worked anywhere

The decision to sell spectrum to private operators, made more than 20 years ago, was a roaring success. It stands in stark contrast to the decision to grant Telkom a monopoly on landlines. The landline monopoly period was based on the idea that cellphones would be toys for the rich, while landlines were basic services that had to be rolled out to the poor. Today, there are only 3.4-million fixed lines left, far below the peak of 5.5-million in 2000 and the lowest total since 1992. At the same time, mobile operators pioneered better technology and innovative payment options to deliver 80-million mobile connections covering the vast majority of SA’s population.

The spectrum mobile companies own, however, is saturated. There is simply no technical way to coax higher data speeds for more subscribers at lower prices out of the available frequency bands. To enable mobile operators to make high-speed data services (such as LTE) available to more people, they need access to new spectrum.

There is spectrum available, notably in the 700MHz and 800MHz bands that used to be used for television broadcasts, and the 2.6GHz band. The government had been planning to auction off this spectrum, but that decision has been put on ice in favour of a new policy of spectrum nationalisation.

Unlike privately owned spectrum, wireless open-access networks on government-owned spectrum have not ever worked anywhere. When operators are assured of spectrum assets, they can safely invest capital into building out and improving their networks. When they don’t own the spectrum, doing so becomes a much riskier proposition since access to spectrum is at the whim of bureaucrats.

The government faces a stark choice: continue with a spectrum ownership policy that has proven tremendously successful or experiment with a nationalisation plan that is unproven and will most likely stifle investment in better, faster and cheaper data services. How the government proceeds will affect each and every one of us, for better or for worse. Let’s hope it chooses proven success over speculative idealism.

• Vegter has been writing about technology for more than 20 years

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