Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: SUPPLIED
Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: SUPPLIED

The Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) is preparing to license high-demand radio frequency spectrum, President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Monday.

Network operators have said for years that the lack of spectrum is hindering their ability to roll out services and to reduce the cost to communicate. There has been a freeze on new spectrum allocations as the department of telecommunications and postal services and Icasa have disagreed on allocation methods.

"Government has recently decided to accelerate the licensing of the radio frequency spectrum in the 2.6GHz, 700MHz and 800MHz bands to hasten the growth of mobile communications," Ramaphosa said at the ITU Telecom World congress in Durban. The event is being held in Africa for the first time.

The 700MHz and 800MHz bands are known as "digital dividend" frequencies that can be freed up when a country moves from analogue to digital television broadcasting. SA’s migration has been painfully slow.

"Following a cabinet decision last month, our regulator, Icasa, is now preparing to license available high-demand spectrum." Ramaphosa said the government had "finalised" consultations with the telecommunications industry and other stakeholders "to ensure allocation of spectrum reduces barriers to entry, promotes competition and reduces costs to consumers".

The state had also begun preparing for 5G spectrum licensing as part of its plans to build "a smarter digital economy".

5G connectivity is set to vastly improve connectivity speeds and reduce latency, paving the way for technologies such as driverless cars. Vodacom recently launched Africa’s first commercial 5G service in neighbouring Lesotho, and said the same would be possible in SA if the right spectrum were made available.

Ramaphosa’s comments come shortly after the Electronic Communications Amendment Bill was published. The bill proposes, among other things, that a wholesale open-access network be established whereby operators share spectrum and other resources.

The bill appears to make room for a hybrid model that allows for both auctions of spectrum and allocations to the wholesale open-access network, although it is not yet clear what proportion will be allocated to the open-access network.