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Mobile operators fret over Icasa’s looming spectrum switch-off

Mobile operators fret over Icasa’s looming spectrum switch-off

At the end of November, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa will withdraw the radio frequency spectrum temporarily allocated to mobile operators. The spectrum was particularly useful during the first hard lockdown in March 2020 as mobile operators were able to offer a better-quality service.

South Africa’s biggest mobile operators are butting heads again with the country’s telecommunications regulator over the all-important radio frequency spectrum issue.

The Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) plans to withdraw the temporary radio frequency spectrum allocated to mobile operators in early 2020 under the Covid-19 regulations. The spectrum will be withdrawn at the end of November.

Spectrum refers to the radio frequencies on which data is transmitted. The release of more spectrum by Icasa would help mobile operators offer consumers a better quality service with fewer dropped calls and faster internet and download speeds.  

Mobile operators such as MTN, Vodacom, Telkom and Cell C have long argued that the release of new spectrum, which hasn’t happened in more than a decade, will result in improved telecommunications coverage across SA and help lower the cost of mobile data. 

The temporary spectrum issued by Icasa came in handy during the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020 as mobile operators were able to offer better service, helping people work or study from home. The spectrum also alleviated some of the pressure on mobile operators as they have all reported a marked spike in demand and consumption of mobile data since the coronavirus swept into SA. 

Vodacom and MTN, the country’s largest mobile operators, used the temporary spectrum in 2020 to launch high-speed data services such as 5G. South Africa still largely depends on much slower 4G services while developed nations such as the US and China are already moving to 6G. 

Temporary spectrum withdrawal 

Icasa now wants to take away the temporary spectrum, throwing mobile operators into a tailspin. To justify its decision, Icasa said the temporary spectrum was always designed as a temporary measure to help SA through the pandemic. 

Mobile operators want Icasa to reconsider its decision and extend the November deadline, arguing that the temporary spectrum is needed because people are still working from home even though lockdown rules have been substantially eased.

According to an industry insider who asked not to be named, mobile operators want the temporary spectrum to remain in place for as long as SA is under a national state of disaster, which allows the government to keep SA under lockdown regulations. 

The mobile operators want the matter to be escalated as high as the office of Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, the recently appointed Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies, who can issue a policy directive on the temporary spectrum matter.

A Vodacom spokesperson said the biggest loser from Icasa’s decision will be the consumer, who has “enjoyed wider coverage and faster speeds as they have worked from home and accessed educational and entertainment content online since March 2020”.

“We are extremely disappointed that this fourth attempt to licence high-demand spectrum in the last decade has failed, considering we did our utmost to try to find a middle ground so that the spectrum auction could progress,” the spokesperson said. 

Outgoing Telkom CEO Sipho Maseko has already warned that the delays in issuing permanent spectrum by Icasa will add costs to the operations of mobile operators because they will be forced to spend more money on their infrastructure to handle the high data traffic. 

Without the release of new or permanent spectrum, Maseko told Business Maverick it will be hard for Telkom to invest in infrastructure such as new cellphone towers or masts, which are used by mobile operators to extend telecommunications coverage and high-speed data services. 

Telkom has 6,225 masts and towers across SA and plans to roll out more of such infrastructure in the future. But this depends on whether the new spectrum will be fairly auctioned by Icasa. Telkom has already challenged Icasa in court, arguing that its process to auction spectrum won’t be fair as it will disproportionately benefit larger mobile operators.

The release of new spectrum is part of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s structural reform measures to stimulate private sector investments, grow the economy and create jobs. 

On Icasa’s decision to withdraw temporary spectrum, MTN told Business Maverick: “MTN is continuing to pursue solutions on the matter of spectrum, with all role players. We will inform and update all stakeholders as soon as new information is available.” DM/BM

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