Telecommunications regulator the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) says it has had to delay the issuing of new spectrum to March 2021.

Late on Thursday, Icasa said the invitation to apply (ITA) for both the wireless open access network (WOAN) and the international mobile telecommunications (IMT) spectrum, also known as high-demand spectrum, would be published “no later than 30 September 2020.”

Spectrum refers to 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.

SA’s last big set of spectrum was allocated in 2004 and 2005, enabling Vodacom and MTN to roll out their 3G networks. Cell C followed in 2011.

New spectrum had been slated to be allocated in December 2020, but the ITA for the auction, expected to have been issued back in July was delayed.

Icasa said the delay was due, in part, to the emergency spectrum allocation given by the government to allow network operators to cope with increased communications demand due to Covid-19 and lockdowns. Additionally, the authority had been finalising terms around how the WOAN would work, and the government had still been appointing new councillors — a process recently concluded.

“In light of the time lost as a result of the delay in the issuing of the ITAs, the auction of the high-demand spectrum, which was originally contemplated to take place during December 2020, will be completed by no later than March 31 2021,” said the authority.

Icasa says it will issue an invitation to network operators to take part in the long awaited auction by the end of September.

A glimmer of hope for new spectrum came about earlier in 2020 as the government issued additional temporary allocation to operators such as MTN, Telkom, Vodacom, Rain and Liquid Telecom in the hopes of coping with increased communications demand because of Covid-19.

Vodacom and MTN have already used this to launch commercial 5G services.

The ITA is also important because it would give industry players guidance on prices for the auction, which still remain unclear. A previous ITA was scrapped in 2018 after squabbles between the regulator and minister of telecommunications and postal services Siyabonga Cwele. That ITA did indicate that a minimum bidding price at auction would be about R3bn.



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