Last year, the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services issued a controversial proposed Electronic Communications Amendment Bill. This included the contentious proposal to create a wholesale, open-access network from which telecoms licensees would be expected to buy capacity, a development which mobile network operators have vocally criticised. To add to the discontent, the Bill was published in November with an unreasonable 30-day period for comment. Thankfully, this has now been extended until 30 January 2018.

One aspect of the plan that is certain to inspire commentary is the proposed establishment of a Wholesale Open-Access Network (WOAN). This would house the sought-after bands of spectrum coveted by network operators and, according to the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services, allow the nearly 400 electronic communications network service licensees access to spectrum.

The Department has clarified that the WOAN will be designed and managed by the private sector, with existing operators expected to buy into it. This removes the Independent Communications Authority of SA’s (Icasa’s) ability to follow an auction process for high-demand spectrum. This approach has been taken, as the Department argues that a market-based approach could favour those with deep pockets, instead of granting spectrum where it could have the greatest socio-economic value.

The new Bill takes place in the context of many years of telecommunications stakeholders appealing to government to allocate the spectrum—much of which remains tied up in analogue television signal distribution—through auctions and other competitive means. This would rapidly expand network coverage and reduce data prices.

However, concerned stakeholders, which include the top six operators, say that, in their discussions with the State, they were led to believe that a hybrid model would be adopted. This would have been a preferable compromise, in which some of the spectrum would be allocated on a competitive basis, while the remaining portion would be reserved for the WOAN.

Although the Department claims that stakeholders are accustomed to sharing resources, dissenters argue that a shared network would grind capital expenditure on operators’ individual services to a halt, to the detriment of consumers. The only other African country to employ such a WOAN is Rwanda, which has experienced a rise in data costs and fall in overall network coverage.

Regardless of their individual views on the Bill, stakeholders were in agreement that a mere 30 days was insufficient to comment to the proposed changes, some of which are set to radically disrupt the industry. This had resulted in the amended end-January 2018 deadline.