The Select Committee met on a virtual platform with the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT) for a briefing on the Final Acts of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) World Radiocommunication Conference of 2019.
Committee Members asked if this international agreement ensures an increase in the number of female engineers; if the interests and sovereignty of the country can be threatened by the actions of an ITU member state; who monitors the signatories of this international agreement to ensure it is adhered to; are there penalties for failure to abide by the provision; if this ITU treaty benefited by ensuring digital access for rural communities and persons with disabilities; if a dispute arises between two ITU member states what is the procedure for resolving this; how far the amendment of the National Radio Frequency Plan is to ensure alignment; and if spectrum is distributed to nations equally.
The Department noted a key resolution of WRC-19 on WiFi was to identify additional radio frequency bands for High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS). They enable wireless broadband in remote areas where cellular network is not strong in rural and remote areas such as mountainous areas and deserts. It should soon come to South Africa. It also noted the World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC) in June 2022 to adopt programmes and strategies to bridge the digital divide.
The new Chairperson, Zolani Mvika, was elected as the previous Chairperson, Tshitereke Matibe, had been deployed back to Limpopo.
Deputy Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies opening remarks
Deputy Minister Philly Mapulane noted the Final Acts of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) World Radio Conference 2019, which was an international agreement. South Africa is a member of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) which is a United Nations body specialised agency for Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). One of the key programmes ITU deals with is spectrum assignment at a global level. The review of the spectrum assignment is done every three to four years owing to technological developments to agree to changes to radio regulations which govern the use of radiofrequency spectrum and satellite orbits. This review necessitates all 193 member countries plus one which is Palestine to meet at every global conference to negotiate the allocation of spectrum to various industries and uses.
Spectrum is a scarce resource that requires its utilisation to be streamlined to support key SA national priorities to support economic transformation to realise National Development Plan objectives such as universal broadband roll-out, satellite communication services, aircraft services, maritime and the ocean economic programmes, environmental public protection and disaster relief, emergency, and security services and other future programmes.
Section 34 of the Electronic Communications Act tasks the Minister to negotiate and meet South Africa’s participation in key radio communication policy forums including the ITU World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), ITU Radiocommunication Assembly and the Africa Telecommunication Union preparatory meetings. The Final Acts of the WRC-2019 were signed off by the former Minister following these extensive engagements.
The Final Acts WRC-19 contain numerous changes to the radio regulations which the Department will discuss. Prior to participating in the WRC, the Department did extensive consultation regionally under the South African Development Community (SADC) and at continental level under the African Union (AU) to come up with African common positions. However, South Africa’s positions were also endorsed by Cabinet. Coming out of WRC-19, the Department has finalised its report back to Cabinet on the outcomes and has revised the radio frequency spectrum plan as well as started a process of ratification in line with Sec 231(2) of the Constitution.
Due to the suspension of activities of Parliament during the Covid-19 disaster period, South Africa has delayed ratifying the Final Acts that came into force on 1 January 2021 at a global level. However, as a country, it is still imperative that Parliament ratify the signed international agreement. For SA to be fully compliant, ratification by Parliament is very necessary. Should Parliament agree with the process, then it must ratify this treaty.
The WRC-19 like its predecessor brought together global stakeholders in processes that are aimed at building a consensus tool, amongst others, to provide a stable and predictable regulatory environment for future investments:
• To enable new radio communications systems and applications to access the radio spectrum.
• To protect the operation of existing radio communication service.
• To ensure that there is rational and equitable efficient economic use of radio frequency spectrum and satellite orbit resources.
• The final ratification amended will serve to benefit and protect the republic during international coordination of radiofrequency spectrum usage.
• Coordination of satellite deployment to mitigate interference with national services.
• Coordination and approval of any regional radio frequencies spectrum plans. Also ensure that there is conformity and strengthen validity of the updated national radio frequency plan.
Ratification of the World Radiocommunication Conference 2019 Final Acts
Ms Nonkqubela Jordan-Dyani, DCDT Acting Director-General, said that ratification of the Final Acts which is the outcome of the 2019 Conference will serve to:
• Benefit and protect the Republic of South Africa during international coordination of radiofrequency spectrum usage; coordination of satellite deployment to mitigate interference with national services, and coordination and approval of any regional radio frequency spectrum plans.
• Ensure that revised Radio Regulations, the international treaty governing the use of the radio-frequency spectrum and the geostationary-satellite and non-geostationary-satellite orbits are approved by Resolution and that those Radio Regulations impacting SA are updated in the National Radio Frequency Plan (NRFP).
She reported that the WRC-19 had 22 agenda items and 11 issues covering all radio services. The key strategic outcomes from WRC-19 impacting South Africa’s policies and National Radio Frequency Plan are:
• Mobile Broadband: WRC-19 allocated additional spectrum to support fifth-generation (5G) network deployment, which will enhance access to mobile broadband applications and services.
• Broadcasting-satellite service (BSS): Protection of frequency assignments, providing a priority mechanism for developing countries to regain access to spectrum orbit resources. This is to ensure that developing countries can deploy their own satellites.
• Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS): Amended Radio Regulation to expand coverage and enhanced capabilities of GMDSS by adding a new GMDSS system – this is also meant to improve service competition in the market.
• Earth Exploration Satellite Service (EESS): Protection accorded to EESS to allow ESSS use for satellite tracking, telemetry, and control.
• Wireless Fidelity (WiFi) networks: There has been proliferation of WiFi use, hence regulatory provisions were revised to accommodate both indoor and outdoor usage and the growth in demand for wireless access systems, including Radio Local Area Network (RLANs) for end-user radio connections to public or private core networks, such as WiFi, while limiting their interference into existing satellite services.
• Railway Radiocommunication Systems between Train and Trackside (RSTT): Resolution approved on railway radiocommunication systems to facilitate the deployment of a railway train and trackside systems to meet the needs of a high-speed railway environment in particular for train radio applications for improved railway traffic control, passenger safety and security for train operations;
• Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS): ITU Recommendation (standard) approved to integrate ICTs in evolving ITS to connect vehicles, improve traffic management and assist in safer driving.
She asked that the Select Committee note the WRC-19 outcomes and consider recommending the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) ratification of the Final Acts in line with Section 231(2) of the Constitution.
Ms L Bebee (ANC, Kwa-Zulu Natal) noted that in signing the Final Acts WRC-19, South Africa made some reservations which are intended to protect the sovereignty and interest of the country. She asked if it is possible that the interest and sovereignty of the country could be threatened by the actions of an ITU member state. She asked who monitors the signatories of these international agreements to ensure the provisions are adhered to and implemented? If a signatory country fails to abide by these provisions, are there penalties or sanctions imposed on them?
Ms W Ngwenya (ANC, Gauteng) asked which other member states have signed the agreement to be part of this ITU treaty. To what extent has this benefited rural provinces in ensuring that the radio spectrum reaches the poorest communities in the country? What is the legal opinion on the accessibility of this spectrum for persons with disabilities and persons with special needs?
Ms T Modise (ANC, North West) felt that for the international agreement to have more meaning, one will expect government policy of signatory countries to increase the number of female engineers. She asked if they were on course towards this commitment. If a dispute arises between two ITU member states as a result of provision in the international agreement, what is the procedure for resolving such matters?
Mr A Arnold (EFF, Western Cape) said the Select Committee noted the briefing on Final Acts WRC-19. The ratification is not in conflict with SA laws and will require only the amendment of the NRFP. He asked how far the Department is in its engagement with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) to ensure alignment. It is important for emergency services to have sufficient frequencies at their disposal in the event of serious events. He indicated that SA has not fully digitally migrated with access to spectrum. A call for the WRC to consider the participation of more women in spectrum planning is commendable.
Mr M Nhanha (DA, Eastern Cape) agreed that the spectrum is a scarce resource. However, his interest is in the fair distribution of this scarce resource internationally. How much are developed nations taking and how much are under-developed nations getting? Is the spectrum distributed around the world on a proportional basis or equally amongst the nations?
Ms Jordan-Dyani, Acting Director-General, replied that SA always wants to protect its sovereignty hence the condition that says the Final Acts must conform to the country’s domestic laws. Africa was behind in digitally migrating, so countries had opted to preserve those spectrum bands for analogue broadcasting. She emphasized that the plan for SA has always been to migrate. The Department fears that if they do not conclude digital migration they foresee a situation where there could be interference with neighbour countries who have migrated, then ITU would request SA to switch off the analogue signals or the spectrum bands that are not in use. This will have a negative impact especially on mobile and broadcasting.
It is imperative for the Department to fast-track digital migration because those frequency bands no longer receive protection from the ITU. The last countries which asked for an extension until 2020 are countries within this region which are still lagging behind in the completion of migration. They must negotiate with neighbouring countries. SA will sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOUs) or bilateral agreements with neighbouring countries to facilitate this and avoid it being escalated to a global level. This can be negotiated between the regulators of each neighbouring country. A time frame for such negotiations to resolve frequency interference disputes is included or it will get escalated to the next level and then to ITU.
ITU monitors the signatories of the international agreement. A specific ITU business unit, the radio bureau, handles this. There are no sanctions and penalties; however, there are other instruments that talk about interference of a neighbour within the orbital slot of a particular country where there are sanctions and penalties. This is the reason SA takes such an important focus in this area due to its magnitude and impact. South Africa is putting up a candidate for re-election to the Radio Regulations Board, Mr Mandla Mcunu, who is an ICASA employee, because they want to protect this. It has ensured that it has a strong candidate to be able to protect the interest of developing countries against those of developed countries. Certainly, every country comes with their own interests with its various industries and sectors as well as service providers.
For SA, it remains a developmental agenda to ensure that it breaches the digital divide to ensure that all citizens have access to universal services in telecommunications in both broadcasting and broadbrand services. A key resolution that came out of the WRC-19 on WiFi was to identify additional radio frequency bands for High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS). They augment wireless broadband in remote areas where cellular network is not strong especially in SA because it has mountainous areas with valleys. They wanted to ensure that each citizen in the country gets the best service in both broadcasting and broadband services. South Africa's aim is to have universal access where everyone will benefit. One of the objectives it appreciates of the ITU is that it always ensures digital inclusion – their programmes cater for women, children and people with disability. They ensure that the tools they use accommodate everyone in different sectors including women and people with disabilities. The ITU developmental sector manages such programmes.
The Department will be attending the World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC) in June 2022 which will ensure the adoption of programmes and strategies to enhance digital inclusion. The focus this year will be very big on youth and women and ensuring equitable representation. The WRC-19 was very male-dominated so it took a resolution to ensure that there is more female participation and ensure wider participation of women in engineering and encourage the girl child to enter this field. The resolution ensured that the elective positions in the ITU and related sectors have female representation. Currently, the five ITU leadership positions have only one female and they need to balance this going forward.
On the NRFP, it is negotiated but ICASA is guided by outcomes of the conference on what to do. She emphasized that they have prescribed to ICASA as government, the services to be set aside for emergencies according to the Electronic Communications Act (ECA). The Department will engage the state institutions on security and safety with their requirements and needs then take it to ICASA. Within the 5G spectrum, they will be licensed later this year. Their policy will be deliberate to say over and above the emergency services for police and safety they want to a have is a set aside spectrum for broadband because it has become an imperative universal obligation. They will set aside a spectrum to ensure what they want to achieve under the SA connect and broadband has frequency spectrum available for it. Unfortunately, the Department their percentage of delegation for women was 34 to 38% which should be increased. Their Department only has very few engineers however their aim is to increase this number going forward. The regulator is doing better with more females. They also encourage the sector and those industry players to ensure wide participation of women.
Spectrum distribution and proportion negotiations take place on a global scale. The big challenge in the negotiations for the agreement reached between SA and Europe is that the environments are different as SA is still developing while Europe is well advanced and always ahead. The rest of the world has already done 5G and is already looking at moving to 6G while Africa is still trying to bridge the digital divide. At times they have a concession where Africa seeks to have its own preserved space. They have been at war continually on this issue of Africa becoming its own region because it certainly has the market for it, looking at the number of countries compared to the European continent.
There is interest in developed countries and suppliers to keep Africa contained as part of their region so that they can sell products to them. This issue will always be a stumbling block. However, Africa is continually trying to push its agenda on the subject. They have commissioned a proposal at AU level including the aviation industry to persuade them that Africa really needs to stand on its own. It will help to build their own capabilities because they will also be able to produce their own products to sell within the market. There are other countries that have shown interest in the matter and are trying to assist and also looking out for their own interest as well. They are supporting the separation so that they may sell products to SA. However, the biggest win for SA could be if Africa were to become its own region where they will realise their goal setting for SA and be able to supply the equipment to the rest of the continent.
Mr Silulami Doyi, DCDT Director: ICT Multilateral, said that spectrum is equally available in all countries including resources for satellite networks. However, it is important for developing countries to constantly engage with the ITU process and conferences that make these decisions to take into account the peculiar circumstances of their region. The ITU constitution is where the rights and obligations of all ITU member states are enshrined for they know very well that radio signals do not stop at political borders. Other countries do not have the privilege that SA has as it is in harmony with its neighbours. They resolve matters amongst themselves without involving the ITU. However, there is a mechanism when there are disputes to send these to the ITU. If the ITU radio communication bureau is unable to resolve the dispute, it is escalated to 12 experts on the Radio Regulation Board appointed globally – including SA’s own Mr Mandla Mchunu from ICASA – to resolve such matters. If that board fails to resolve the matter on the basis of the rules and established procedures, it will get escalated to a subsequent ITU conference for the 193 member states to consider.
For WiFi, they have set conditions for most devices to operate indoors. If they operate them outdoors or in vehicles, they cause an accumulative effect which is a summation of interference that affects other radio systems. There was also a WRC agreement on another technology called high altitude platform stations (HAPS). If this technology was currently available in SA it would be ideal for them to use especially with the recent floods in KZN. It is suitable to function well in rural and remote areas such as mountainous areas, deserts, rivers and so forth. However, it will soon come to SA because the agreement signed with the WRC-19 allows for it to come to South Africa.
Deputy Minister response
The Deputy Minister reported that the ratification came at a convenient time on the back of a very successful allocation of spectrum in the country by the regulator ICASA. In March 2022 the mobile operators were allocated spectrum and given licences by ICASA through a radio frequency spectrum auction and it was very successful.
This was a historic auction spectrum by ICASA. South Africa has been struggling for some time for the spectrum to be allocated to mobile operators. This delay was due to continual litigation. ICASA had initially expected to raise R8 billion from the spectrum auction process instead it has raised a whopping R14,4 billion. This is despite the adverse economic situation the country is facing. It is important to note that the allocation of the spectrum will assist South Africa through its broadband penetration programme in rolling out broadband to communities. The aim is that in three years 80% of the population should have access to broadband. Obligations were imposed by the regulator on these mobile operators where they will need to connect various public facilities.
On the delay in broadcasting digital migration, the Department briefed the Portfolio Committee and updated it on how far DCDT is with BDM. They have made significant progress as they have switched off analogue distribution to about five provinces: Free State, Northern Cape, North West, Limpopo and Mpumalanga. These five provinces have completely migrated, there is no longer analogue signal distribution but full digital television. Four provinces remain and the process of completion is well on the way. Gauteng is also ready to be switched off and to be migrated to digital television. There are delays in Kwa-Zulu Natal, Western Cape and Eastern Cape. There are challenges in Kwa-Zulu Natal due to the flood disaster as houses have completely washed away or are inaccessible.
The analogue switch-off deadline was 31 March 2022. However, it was postponed by three months by the court due to litigation to stop the switch-off process which was unsuccessful. The process is scheduled to be completed by 30 June 2022. The team is busy on the ground ramping up installation through Sentech. Sentech is building up capacity for installers to be deployed throughout the country to meet the deadline. They are confident that they are well on course to meet the deadline to migrate the country from analogue to digital television. Should there be any delays, the Department will communicate this; however, they are on par. The Department would like to assure the country that it will execute this process and be able to release the necessary radio spectrum to be allocated to the mobile operators.
On the ratification of international instruments, such negotiations take place in an environment that is informed by developments throughout the world. The developing countries would protect their own interests; however, the environment might not be favourable for them. The country’s position was approved by Cabinet and found expression in the final treaty in the WRC-2019.
The Chairperson suggested that the Select Committee must approve the treaty in terms of 231(2) of the Constitution. The international agreement that binds the Republic must be approved by both Houses – the National Assembly (NA) and the National Council of Provinces (NCOP). The Department played its part in ensuring that the Select Committee understands the treaty.
Election of new Chairperson
The Committee nominated that Mr Zolani Mkiva should be the new Chairperson.
Mr Z Mkiva (ANC, Eastern Cape) accepted the nomination and thanked the Members for showing confidence and electing him as their new Chairperson. He said he was very humbled and looking forward to taking responsibility and leading the Committee. He will also take council from them as the experienced Members of the Committee.
The meeting was adjourned.
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