TELECOMS LEGAL BATTLE
Icasa pleads with Telkom to drop court case over spectrum auction process
South Africa’s telecommunications and broadcast regulator, Icasa, decided to auction radio frequency spectrum from 8 March to mobile operators. Telkom was one of the companies that participated in the auction. Yet the company is still dragging Icasa to court over the process.
Even though the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) has successfully auctioned off new radio frequency spectrum to mobile operators for the first time in 18 years, the regulator still faces a legal challenge from Telkom.
The fixed-line and mobile operator is forging ahead with its court application to declare Icasa’s recent spectrum auction illegal.
This is despite Telkom itself benefiting from the process as it bought spectrum worth R2.1-billion. Other companies – including MTN, Vodacom, Liquid Intelligent Technologies and Rain – participated in the auction, which resulted in Icasa raising R14.4-billion.
Telkom has long poked holes in Icasa’s spectrum allocation process, arguing that it is at odds with the country’s policy which aims to break the dominance of MTN and Vodacom in the mobile phone market. Telkom’s case is set down for April in the High Court in Pretoria.
One of Telkom’s arguments is that Icasa’s spectrum issue guidelines make it easy for MTN and Vodacom to use their financial muscle to purchase large (and quality) chunks of spectrum, leaving the scraps for smaller mobile operators like Telkom and Cell C.
Spectrum refers to the radio frequencies on which data and information are transmitted. The release of more spectrum by Icasa means a better-quality service for consumers, with fewer dropped calls, faster internet download speeds and the promise of lower mobile data costs.
On Tuesday, 29 March, Icasa pleaded with Telkom to withdraw its court application on the grounds that the regulator is already overwhelmed by other court cases it is involved in.
In a separate matter, the High Court in Pretoria ordered the communications and digital technologies minister, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, to extend the deadline for switching off the analogue television signal in SA for three months, from the end of March to the end of June. Icasa, as the regulator, is an affected party in the matter.
“As a result of these developments, we appeal to Telkom to consider withdrawing its litigation, and to allow the upcoming consultation avenues on these regulatory interventions to conclude,” said Keabetswe Modimoeng, chair of Icasa.
“It is, therefore, a humble plea, and we believe that Telkom will join all of us in embracing the new winds of digital evolution in our country.”
The “digital evolution” referred to by Modimoeng is that spectrum has been released after many years, which has at least made President Cyril Ramaphosa happy.
The release of spectrum for 4G and 5G broadband services by Icasa is part of Ramaphosa’s structural reform measures to grow the economy, create jobs and unlock private sector investments.
The move to television broadcasting
Some of the spectrum that has been bought by mobile operators during Icasa’s recent auction – in the 700MHz and 800MHz bands – is currently used by television broadcasters such as eMedia Holdings, and the deadline extension to end June would pave the way for the handover of spectrum to Icasa.
eMedia Holdings, together with Media Monitoring Africa and SOS Support Public Broadcasting, had campaigned for more time to complete the move from analogue to digital broadcast. This would ensure that government-subsidised set-top boxes were distributed among poorer households, thereby bringing better quality television into all homes.
The government’s migration from an analogue to a digital broadcast signal is more than five years behind schedule.
Back to Telkom. The company said it still intended dragging Icasa to court over its spectrum auction because it wanted “to secure its ability to compete effectively in the mobile market, and “ensure that the licensing of spectrum promotes effective competition in the mobile market”.
Despite this, Telkom bought spectrum that gave it access to the sub-1GHz spectrum band for the first time. The sub-1GHz spectrum band reduces the need for telecommunications companies to build multiple cell phone towers and allows for the provision of better internet coverage in rural areas.
Telkom also bought spectrum in the 22MHz of 3,500MHz band, which will enable it to offer 5G services to consumers. DM/BM