Policy updates: What’s in store for South African telecoms in 2023?
Despite the dual headwinds of load shedding and consumer inflation, 2023 has the potential to be a watershed year for telecommunications in South Africa. With digital migration (seemingly) imminent and spectrum allocation continuing to open up, the country is ripe with potential to provide broader and cheaper internet connectivity.
In 2023, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) is auctioning further spectrum, it confirmed in late December. This follows the 2022 spectrum auction – the first sales of new frequencies for mobile applications in SA in well over a decade.
There are seven bands earmarked for the new auction by the communications regulator, specifically radio frequency spectrum suitable for 4G, 5G and considered ‘future-ready’. For users this means faster connections which better support real-time applications like gaming, telemedicine, video conferencing (no more ‘sorry my connection is lagging’) and so on.
More available spectrum should improve network coverage (especially for remote and rural areas), improve the strength of certain signals. It should also bring down infrastructure costs for providers, savings which (in theory) get passed on to the end users of these services - you and me.
Icasa has also published draft amendments to regulations that pave the way for some short-range radio apparatus operators to go free-range. For instance, operators wanting to use the lower 6GHz band would not need a radio frequency spectrum licence. If approved, the change would go some way to improving speed (how fast data potentially moves across the network), latency (how long it takes), and capacity (how many users can be accommodated at once), especially in new generation wireless devices.
“The lower 6GHz band is rapidly emerging worldwide as a key component in broadband rollout and uptake, providing an essential local loop component to support fibre or fixed wireless access backhaul and Wi-Fi deployment,” the Icasa statement reads.
What this means for users is, for example, faster Wi-Fi from your fibre router, reduced router congestion and less signal interference in short ranges, enabling faster data transfer and lower latency services. That’s also great for edge computing applications, like autonomous vehicles.
The particulars are contained in the Draft Amendment Radio Frequency Spectrum Regulations, 2022, which was available for review and comment until the end of January 2023.
Late last year Minister of communication and digital technologies Khumbudzo Ntshavheni confirmed her intention to switch off the analogue television broadcast signal on 31 March 2023.
Analogue signals are chunky, and needy - analogue TV bands need buffer bands on either side to stop signal interference. Moving broadcast signals over from analogue to digital will free up not only the bands used for TV transmission, but also the buffer bands on either side (collectively called TV white spaces).
This will make spectrum in the lower frequency bands (470MHz - 649MHz excluding the Radio Astronomy sub-band) available for use to roll out internet connectivity in rural, under- and unserved communities. These lower frequency bands are ideal for transmitting data across great distances, unlike the higher frequency bands (3G and up) which are better over short distances.
Whether those opposing the switch will push back again – based on readiness, rather than principle – remains to be seen. Interested parties had until 27 January to submit any comments or objections.
Additionally, industry will be closely watching the efforts of the newly established Artificial Intelligence Institute (which is to open this year) and Digitech (a government-run portal intended to support locally developed digital products).
Also on the table are government proposals to shift from TV licensing to a device-independent tax or household levy within five years, and to “sunset” 2G and 3G by 2025 – neither of which will be uncontroversial.
For now, though, it is clear that – on paper, at least – the South African government has ambitions to use regulation to enable bold digital transformation and is looking to 2023 to lay the groundwork.