Picture: BLOOMBERG/SUSANA GONZALEZ
Picture: BLOOMBERG/SUSANA GONZALEZ

SA's telecoms regulator has delayed the start of the much-anticipated radio frequency spectrum auction, saying an auctioneer is yet to be appointed, meaning the process will not be completed by the end of March as expected. 

Spectrum — the radio waves by which information is transmitted — has not been allocated in SA for almost a decade. In 2020 the regulator outlined plans to auction R8bn worth of broadband spectrum. It aimed to have completed the auction by the end of March.

On Monday, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) said the announcement of qualified bidders for the spectrum would be delayed  by a month, from February 22 to March 23. 

The regulator said a critical step is that the final appointment of the external and independent auctioneer is yet to be concluded. 

“This therefore means that the auction phase — which comprises, among other [things], the bidder seminar, the mock auction and the actual auction — will commence by March 31 2021,” said the regulator. 

The government has been dragging its feet in freeing up and licensing more frequencies amid political squabbles and bureaucratic red tape. Telecoms operators have long argued that making the resource available would do much to reduce the cost of mobile data, a long standing issue for consumers.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has made fixing this issue a big part of his economic agenda for the country. The matter also been flagged by a number of parties, including ratings agency Moody’s Investors Service, as holding SA’s economy back. 

In his state of the nation address earlier in February, Ramaphosa said the process for the licensing of high-demand spectrum is at an advanced stage. “We hope that the ongoing litigation on the licensing matter will provide legal certainty and will not unduly delay the spectrum auction process,” he said.

In a statement, Icasa chair Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng said the licensing of high demand spectrum “is imminent”. He assured “all stakeholders” that “the authority carries the aspirations of the entire nation, and will make sure that the process is concluded with the necessary speed but without untoward haste”.

This is the latest in a series of recent delays to the issuance of spectrum in SA. 

The invitation to apply to participate in the auction scheduled for July 2020 was delayed to October. In September, Icasa said the delay was partly due to the emergency spectrum allocation by the government to allow network operators to cope with increased communications demand due to Covid-19-related lockdowns.

Icasa is also facing legal battles with mobile operators, MTN and Telkom, that have each lodged cases with the high court, citing an unfair and faulty auction process by the regulator. 

With Bekezela Phakathi

gavazam@businesslive.co.za

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