Picture: 123RF/SASIN PARAKSA
Picture: 123RF/SASIN PARAKSA

The government said on Wednesday that it will issue new frequency spectrum to the country’s telecom operators on a temporary basis to expand the network during the nationwide lockdown.

This is in anticipation of the expected rise in communication as SA starts a  21-day shutdown from Friday until mid-April in a bid to reduce the rapid transmission of coronavirus. 

Mobile operators have long argued that access to spectrum will help reduce the cost of mobile data in SA because it will allow the companies to cover a wider geographic area with existing towers while carrying more data traffic.

But in its absence, operators have had to reallocate existing 2G and 3G radio frequencies for 4G services, a process that they say comes at a high cost. Vodacom and MTN, which have the largest networks in the country, spend about R10bn a year on building their networking infrastructure.

Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, the minister of communications & digital technologies, said during a media briefing on Covid-19 that the state would make additional spectrum available to cope with increased voice and data traffic during the lockdown.  

With more people expected to stay indoors, demand for voice and data services is expected to rise across all the networks. 

No details were given as to how the spectrum will be allocated, the period of allocation, who the spectrum will go to and whether operators will have to pay for the additional radio frequencies. 

The industry regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa), said it is engaging with licensed companies on possible ways of radio frequency spectrum relief for the duration of the declared state of disaster.

This is mainly to ease congestion, ensure good quality of broadband services and enable mobile network operators to lower the cost of access to consumers, particularly in relation to education, emergency and other social services, the regulator said.

SA’s last big set of spectrum was allocated in the 2.1GHz band, which enabled Vodacom and MTN (in 2004 and 2005, respectively) to roll out their 3G networks. Cell C received such spectrum in 2011.

Industry players have already criticised Icasa’s proposal, released in late 2019, for how spectrum will be allocated. Some say a pure auction of the spectrum would be likely to favour the large players, Vodacom and MTN, as they have the deepest pockets.

Vodacom said it is “committed to doing what it can to assist during this unprecedented health crisis”.

“We will be in a position to comment further on the spectrum matter after the detail is published in the Government Gazette,” said Vodacom.

Jacqui O’Sullivan, executive for corporate affairs at MTN’s SA unit, said the operator welcomes the decision to temporarily allocate spectrum during the national lockdown.

“We await further details as to how we can best make use of this allocation to serve our customers,” she said. 

gavazam@businesslive.co.za

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