Government goes back to the drawing board on open-access network policy

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  • Government has abandoned its requirements for the licensing of wholesale open-access network.
  • The policy has long been a key part of the strategy to transform the telecommunications industry.
  • The wholesale open-access network was aimed at addressing the rural coverage gap and increasing competition among players in the telecommunications sector.


Government has abandoned its requirements for the licensing of wholesale open-access network (WOAN), a policy created with the aim of improving access to broadband connectivity.

The policy – which was intended to improve competition in the country's mobile market – has long been a key part of the strategy to transform the telecommunications industry. It has also been a bone of contention in Telkom's lawsuit against the Independent Communications Regulator of South Africa.

The open-access network model was proposed as part of the National Integrated ICT Policy White Paper, published in 2016 under the former minister of telecommunications, Siyabonga Cwele.

But Cabinet revealed on Thursday that it had approved an amendment of the policy on high-demand spectrum, as well as the policy direction on the licensing of the WOAN, which had been a contentious point in the auction of high-demand spectrum.

Icasa had, in 2021, temporarily halted the WOAN licensing timetable in order to prioritise the auction of high-demand spectrum.  

New policy direction

According to the new resolution, "the proposed amendments remove the requirements to licence the WOAN". A new policy direction on the licensing of the WOAN will be published for public comment.

Legislators have expressed support for the licensing of high-demand spectrum, which saw Rain and Telkom achieving success in the first round of the auction.  

Telkom, which lodged a legal review against the Icasa-led auction process, is arguing in its court challenge that the regulator overlooked that the WOAN and the International Mobile Telecommunications spectrum (IMT) licensing processes are interlinked. 

READ | Could the WOAN debacle once again derail the much anticipated spectrum auction?

The latest Cabinet decision came after the Minister Communications and Digital Technologies, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, who is one of the respondents in the Telkom case against Icasa, stated in her affidavit that she intends to amend the 2019 Policy Directive concerning the WOAN.

The minister said circumstances have changed in the years since the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) first recommended the amount of spectrum a WOAN would need to be viable. The CSIR undertook a study to determine the amount of spectrum needed for a WOAN to meet national objectives and targets for broadband delivery, as set out in the 2013 National Broadband Policy.

Loyiso Tyira, managing director of ICT SMME Chamber - the organisation that represents the interests of small businesses in the sector, and which is one of the organisations that opposed Icasa's move to halt the licensing of WOAN - said the decision to finally replace the policy was to be expected.

He believes that the delay in the spectrum auction was a "calculated move to kill the WOAN" - a critical policy which was part of the agenda to drive transformation in the telecommunications sector.

"The government has abandoned the transformation agenda," he said.

The wholesale open-access network was, among other things, aimed at addressing the rural coverage gap and increasing competition among players in the telecommunications sector.

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