‘Petty spectrum politics’: No winners as Icasa claws back emergency spectrum

Technicians install a cellphone tower in East London. File photo.
Technicians install a cellphone tower in East London. File photo.
Image: Mark Andrews

As SA continues to grapple with a stubborn and record-breaking third wave of coronavirus infections, the decision by communications authorities to claw back the emergency radio spectrum used by mobile phone operators could not have come at a worse time.

This is the view of cellphone companies and analysts, who said with the country under national state of disaster regulations while the pandemic continues, cheap access to data is needed more than ever.

The Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) announced on Monday that the temporary radio frequency spectrum assigned to licensees — which is due to expire on August 30 — would have to be returned to the authority by November 30 after a three-month grace period. 

Icasa was making a mistake by treating the situation as if it was no longer an emergency and SA was no longer under state of national disaster rules, Arthur Goldstuck, technology analyst and CEO of consulting firm World Wide Worx, told TimesLIVE.

“The basis under which the spectrum was allocated was the massive need that arose for data and connectivity and to help the consumer weather the pandemic storm,” he said.

“That pandemic storm isn’t over. The unemployment rate has gone up, if anything, and the need is even greater than it was 18 months ago.”

Allocation of the emergency spectrum meant operators were able to push lower costs for data. 

“We have seen data costs come down steadily, and in some cases significantly,” Goldstuck said.

The amount of data traffic carried by network operator MTN had more than doubled since the start of the pandemic, said head of corporate affairs Jacqui O’Sullivan.

“Removing the temporary spectrum when the pandemic remains a reality for all South Africans and before Icasa completes the spectrum auction will have a significant impact on data supply,” she said.

The operator had seen a 165% increase in data traffic since the start of the pandemic, and the temporary spectrum had allowed network operators to offer consumers lower price packages, faster speeds and free mobile and money transactions.

Removing the spectrum would leave more than 5-million South Africans without access to zero-rated websites.
Jacqui O’Sullivan, MTN head of corporate affairs

MTN had reduced data prices by about 30% and also zero-rated more than 1,000 health and education websites serving millions of people.

“Removing the spectrum would leave more than 5-million South Africans without access to zero-rated websites,” said O’Sullivan.

The third wave of coronavirus infections had increased the number of people working and studying from home, she said.

The expiry of the temporary licences would also have serious ramifications for network operators who have spent billions of rand on additional infrastructure to handle the temporary spectrum.

Vodacom spokesperson Byron Kennedy said while the operator welcomed Icasa’s decision to extend the temporary spectrum assignment until November, withdrawing access could be premature.

“Given temporary spectrum was introduced through the Disaster Management Act as a mechanism to assist networks to meet sudden shifts in customer behaviour at the onset of Covid-19 lockdowns in SA, it may be detrimental to consumers to withdraw the allocation while the national state of disaster remains in place,” he said.

Users had benefited from wider coverage and faster speeds, allowing them to work and study from home and access educational and entertainment content for the past 18 months.

Awarding new spectrum to operators was critical for operators to reduce costs, Kennedy said.

“While we don’t necessarily share Icasa’s view on the current SA environment related to Covid-19, we remain encouraged by the focus Icasa wishes to maintain on the auctioning of high demand spectrum,” he said.

Goldstuck said there was no clear prospect when the spectrum auction would happen. 

“Given that situation, it’s rather surprising they want to claw back the emergency spectrum,” he said. 

Goldstuck said this was a case of the regulator “exhibiting its muscles” by sticking to the letter of the regulatory framework.  

In the past 12 years we’ve had 12 ministers of communications.
Arthur Goldstuck, technology analyst

“It’s petty spectrum politics,” he said.

The decision would be a further setback for using the 5G spectrum and was a “damaging symptom” of the lack of leadership at government level, he said. 

The government’s digital migration strategy had failed to free space in the radio frequency spectrum and this had also hamstrung Icasa, he said.

Goldstuck suggested a quick fix would be to reappoint SACP stalwart Yunus Carrim as telecommunications minister.

Carrim held the portfolio for 10 months in 2013 until former president Jacob Zuma reshuffled his cabinet after the 2014 elections.

“In the past 12 years we’ve had 12 ministers of communications,” Goldstuck said. “In the 10 months he was in place, he achieved more than all the other minsters put together.”

Icasa did not respond to a request for comment.



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