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

The Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) will publish a Government Gazette containing regulations for the temporary allocation of radio frequency spectrum, to aid in communications during the national lockdown.

The gazette comes as the government instructed Icasa in March to issue new spectrum to telecom operators on a temporarily, to expand the network during the nationwide lockdown.

This is to manage the expected rise in communication as South Africans go through the 21-day lockdown until mid-April in a bid to reduce the rapid transmission of the coronavirus outbreak.

Spectrum refers the radio frequencies on which data and information are carried. 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.

On Monday, Icasa said it had decided to make the following spectrum bands available for temporary assignment: 700MHz, 800MHz, 2,300MHz, 2,600MHz and 3,500MHz.

Telecoms players will be required to submit their applications to Icasa by April 9. The bands shall be assigned in accordance with the criteria and conditions stipulated, said Icasa.

Operators will be able to apply free of charge as “any prescribed fee, that would have been applicable” to the bands “is waived”.

Spectrum issued under these guidelines will be valid until the end of November 2020.

Icasa acting chair Keabetswe Modimoeng said in a statement: “It is of critical importance to note that the emergency release of this spectrum does not, in any way whatsoever, negate the processes that are currently under way for permanent assignment of spectrum through an auction, the process which [ICASA] had committed to finalise by the end of 2020; as well as the assignment of spectrum to be set aside for the wireless open-access network (WOAN) due for completion next year.” 

The regulator said that in the light of the recent economic developments, particularly the country’s downgrade by ratings agencies Moody's and Fitch, “the release of high-demand spectrum has become critical as it is one of the key interventions to stimulate economic recovery”.

“[Icasa] will take all measures necessary to ensure that the permanent licensing process for high-demand spectrum is expedited.”

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.

As to how this temporary allocation will affect competition in the market, Modimoeng said: “We intend to take the necessary care in this regard; and to ensure that there are no irreversible anticompetitive effects for the market.”

Icasa also said it was following debates and pronouncements that purport to link the spread of Covid-19 to the deployment of fifth-generation (5G) technologies.

gavazam@businesslive.co.za