ICASA at odds with WISPs over WiFi 6E spectrum

Telecoms regulator the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) is protecting the incumbents that are using the much-needed 1 200GHz of WiFi 6E spectrum.

WiFi 6E spectrum has the potential to unlock a new era of connectivity that will dramatically improve the wireless experience. It empowers the newest generation of WiFi devices to achieve faster speed, lower latency and higher capacity.

According to telecoms industry body, the Wireless Access Providers Association (WAPA), South Africa could benefit by up to nearly $58 billion (R928 billion) over the next 10 years by enabling 1 200 licence-exempt megahertz in the 6GHz band.

However, it says ICASA has so far failed to release this spectrum.

WAPA notes the total $57.76 billion consists of $34.81 billion in GDP contribution, $13.32 billion in producer surplus, to South African businesses, and $9.63 billion in consumer surplus.

In response, Paseka Maleka, ICASA spokesperson, says: “The regulator’s decision in respect of the WiFi 6E spectrum has been clearly articulated in the National Radio Frequency Plan 2021, published on 25 March 2022, that consideration may be made for future licence-exempt services provided it is feasible for the protection of incumbent services, given the fact that the frequency band is allocated to the fixed, fixed satellite and mobile services on a primary basis.”

He explains this spectrum band is currently benefitting the South African public, whereby fixed links in the lower 6GHz (5 925 − 6 425MHz) provide for broadband fixed wireless access, fixed-satellite uplinks (point-to-point/VVSAT terminals, as well as aeronautical earth stations used for the safety of flights in the frequency band 5 925 – 6 425MHz and for radio astronomy (observation of Methanol), while Satellite News Gathering is provided in the frequency band 5 850 − 6 425MHz.

“The authority urges all interested stakeholders to fully participate in all the consultative processes ICASA usually opens, and when they do, they must ensure they cover all issues of interest for the authority to consider,” says Maleka.

More than spectrum

WAPA says it has collaborated with Dynamic Spectrum Alliance (DSA) in SA over several months and the parties are excited with the data that led to their findings.

Three further studies were simultaneously conducted by DSA and its partners for Nigeria, Kenya and Indonesia, all with similar findings, says the industry body.

It notes the DSA is working with the Digital Access Programme in the UK to share its spectrum expertise.

The study in SA and elsewhere was to assess the service quality, coverage and affordability impact of different applications for the unlicensed use of the 6GHz band, says the association.

DSA president Martha Suarez says: “It [WiFi 6 spectrum] will also play a crucial role in bridging the digital divide in these countries, enabling improved access to remote education, work and commerce. WiFi needs greater spectrum access in the 6GHz band to effectively support the modern digital ecosystem.”

“Opening up 1 2GHz of unlicensed spectrum would be phenomenal compared to the spectrum we have available in South Africa right now, even after the recent high-demand IMT spectrum auction of 306MHz,” says Paul Colmer, executive at WAPA.

“To put that in perspective, WISPs [wireless internet service providers] have been using the same unlicensed sub-6GHz point-to-multipoint spectrum since the IECNS licences were granted in 2009.”

“WiFi 6E is WiFi 6 extended. It provides numerous 160MHz channels and provides the fastest WiFi yet because it delivers multi-gigabit, low latency connections essential to supporting next-generation services,” WAPA says.

Colmer says this will have more positive effect than just making new spectrum available.

“The current WiFi 5 spectrum is heavily congested because many devices are vying for the same band of frequency.”

Ubiquitous WiFi

Christopher Geerdts, managing director at BMIT, comments: “WiFi has, by stealth, become central to our daily lives – in the home and office and in public spaces, connecting everything from smartphones and laptops, to watches, IOT sensors and controllers.

“It is because of the widespread use and growth that additional spectrum needs to be found to further the economic impact of this growth, and before the spectrum becomes too congested.”

According to Geerdts, that is why the US took the lead, two years ago, in opening this spectrum to WiFi 6E and why so many countries are following.

“BMIT, therefore, believes it is inevitable that WiFi 6E spectrum will be allocated in SA at some stage, given the considerable global momentum and the importance of the spectrum to the future of WiFi.”

He adds the 6E band has more than twice the spectrum than WiFi currently uses. “Opening that band allows faster, more reliable connectivity, with lower latency and at lower costs. It opens the market to competition, which is good for the customer. South Africa can then benefit from the global economies of scale of equipment and, therefore, the innovation and lower prices that entails. Efficient use of spectrum is a pillar of ICASA’s strategy, and unlicensed spectrum, such as that used by WiFi, is definitely efficiently used.”

However, he points out that SA is now lagging many countries with the WiFi 6E spectrum allocation process.

In order for spectrum to be re-allocated, Geerdts believes there needs to be impact studies, stakeholder consultations, engagement with incumbents (existing operators that use the spectrum) and public discussion of the intended plans.

“ICASA would need to find ways to provide for WiFi 6E, while also protecting incumbents (such as satellite operators) if ICASA supports their continued use.

“For South African homes and offices, WiFi 5 and WiFi 6 are usually adequate right now, but given that WiFi 6E equipment is already being sold in some countries, given the ongoing market demand for exponentially faster connectivity by more and more devices, and given the pressing need for WiFi 6E for WISPs, and to connect under-serviced areas, South Africa does need to expedite the allocation process to ensure we do not get left behind.”

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