Sentech gives up crucial spectrum

Sentech has decided to return its full allocation of radio frequency spectrum to ICASA.

Sentech. Picture: Supplied

CAPE TOWN - Government-owned signal distributor Sentech has to turn over R500 million to National Treasury because the Department of Communications has not developed a policy to increase access to broadband internet, the Business Day reported on Wednesday.

In an interview on 567 Cape Talk and Talk Radio 702's Midday Report, Techcentral editor Duncan McLeod illustrated how this matter has been an ongoing concern for the telecommunications industry for many years.

"Back in the mid-2000s, Sentech was given two operating licences one of which allowed them to build a national wireless broadband network. Sentech made a real mess of that rollout.

"It wasn't prepared to deal with customers and manage call centres and all that [was] entailed [in the project]. We saw an investment, I think it was in the region of R700- 800million into that business and it failed."

McLeod went on to say that there has been a lot of scepticism about Sentech once again getting involved in building a wireless broadband network.

This time, Sentech has reportedly been talking about building a wholesale network and working with a service provider to deal with consumers, rather than doing it directly.

Despite the apparent lack of trust in Sentech, McLeod does report that the development has indeed been welcomed by some quarters, particularly the news that Sentech is handing back a crucial portion of radio frequency spectrum to the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA).

It is hoped that this spectrum can, in future, be used or handed out to operators that can build next generational broadband networks.

In addition to freeing up the spectrum to the rest of the telecommunications industry, McLeod stated that it is hoped the outcome for service providers such as Vodacom and Cell C will be an ability to deploy 4G networks (the fourth generation of mobile communication technology standards).

"The mobile networks in particular are really jumping at the chance to get access to this spectrum so that they can build 4G networks. Vodacom and MTN for example have been reallocating some of their existing spectrums for limited 4G network deployment.

"They really don't have access to the spectrum to do this. They have got millions of customers on their networks. The bandwidth they have got access to, the spectrum they have got access to, is already under a great deal of pressure and they really do need access to additional bandwidth," McLeod said.

Despite the great news for the telecommunications industry, awaited movements from the department and specifically the Minister of Communications Dina Pule, is of concern.

The department will need to put out a policy document around how the spectrum will be used before ICASA can go ahead with licensing.

Pule is facing a number of investigations by both the Public Prosecutor and Parliament's joint committee on ethics.

It is claimed Pule's romantic partner engineered a plan to get friends and relatives on the boards of the Post Office, Sentech, Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (USAASA) and the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).

Police have also been asked to investigate the SABC's Chief Financial Officer Gugu Duda, the broadcaster's CEO Lulama Makhobo and the minister's alleged romantic partner, Phosane Mngqibisa.

A nine-member panel was appointed by Parliament in March to investigate Pule's role in an ICT Indaba which her department hosted in 2012.

The indaba was attended by delegates from across the globe and was meant to discuss how South Africa can bridge the digital divide and unlock opportunities that technology presents.

It is alleged Pule's partner was involved in coordinating the event and earned millions from it.

McLeod suggests a deteriorating faith in the department's abilities by the telecommunications industry.

"This has been a problem in the Department of Communications for many years, there has been huge instability."

"The ministry keeps changing and this is a big problem for the sector because it is a complex sector and often you get politicians moving into the sector who don't really understand the issues, don't understand the technologies and the complexities of the industry and then have to spend six months to a year really getting on top of issues.

"It does indeed lead to delays. The constant personnel changes in the ministry is a concern for the industry."