The Department of Communication and Digital Technologies is committed to drive universal access to spectrum to ensure consumers can afford to communicate and that smaller players gain entry into the ICT sector.
Robert Nkuna, the department's Director-General, said this when he, officials and Deputy Minister Pinky Kekana appeared before the Select Committee on Public Enterprises and Communication at the Marks Building in Parliament on Wednesday.
"... we are committed to drive universal access and ensure that all South Africans have access to quality and affordable services and what we are doing now by licensing spectrum and reducing prices speaks to that.
"Two, we are committed to competition in such a way that we allow smaller operators to participate and play throughout the value chain of the sector," he said.
The release of spectrum is expected to pave way for South Africa to migrate to higher speed wireless broadband - 5G - with all sectors of the economy bracing themselves for the disruption and opportunities that will be presented by the 4th Industrial Revolution.
Briefing the committee, Nkuna said Cabinet approved the ICT White Paper that deals with spectrum after taking a decision in 2016 that the ICT market could no longer be left in its current state.
This is after studies done by Independent Communication Authority of South Africa (ICASA) and the Competition Commission found that while there were four major mobile players in the country, Vodacom was the biggest player as it owned the most ICT infrastructure across municipalities, followed by MTN, and that other players like Cell C and Telkom often had to approach Vodacom to use its infrastructure, which made it difficult for them to compete.
"Recently, we have a situation whereby Cell C and Telkom have gone to the bigger [operators] to ask to use their infrastructure. So we have a situation where there are four companies that are supposed to be competing with each other but then the smaller ones have less infrastructure and have to go to the bigger one... "
He said the infrastructure issue presented a challenge whereby only the players with infrastructure will gain access to spectrum, once it is released.
Nkuna said the White Paper proposed a policy where, instead of licensing spectrum to one dominant player with them charging their own exclusive prices, "open access" is promoted in "wholesale" form, with the regulator playing role in determining what prices all licensed players will pay.
"So this overall is what we are proposing in the White Paper. This is called openness and transparency. So we have been saying to the mobile operators that we need openness and transparency. What this means is that we see in the fibre environment - all the companies that are operating in that space are operating on open access basis.
"Now the question is that if we can do it in the fibre environment, why can't we do it in the wireless environment because the same industry is already operating on open access.
"Equal access and non-discrimination means that you can't give something to one company and refuse to give to another company, unless it is on the grounds that capacity is not available," he said.
Nkuna said the White Paper proposed the establishment of what is called a "Wireless Open Access Network".
"Now a wireless open access network will be a wholesaler. So we then said that as one of the interventions to deal with the challenges that we have mentioned, there is a need for a wholesaler so that smaller companies can go to that wholesaler to gain access to infrastructure," he said.
He said the Wireless Open Access Network would be, according to the White Paper proposal, a private company modelled like signal distributor Sentech, which provides signal to all broadcasters.
However, after an outcry of smaller players, an agreement was reached in July last year that there will be a hybrid model where a wholesaler will co-exist with other established and smaller players in the ICT sector.
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