Picture: 123RF/citadelle
Picture: 123RF/citadelle

SA telecommunication companies are trying to settle a wireless spectrum auction dispute with the industry regulator out of court to avoid a prolonged legal battle.

“Mediation efforts” are under way to find a simpler and faster way forward, MTN Group CEO Ralph Mupita said in an interview. The Johannesburg-based company, which has the second-most subscribers in the country, and smaller operator Telkom have both appealed to courts about the planned structure of the auction.

“Discussions are encouraging and we need to find each other between now and the middle of September,” Mupita said. “We want a solution soon, and we are heavily invested to find it out of court.”

SA market leader Vodacom and MTN have long called for more spectrum to expand their data services and boost revenue, and the plan was approved in October last year after years of delays. 

The government sees the move as a way to attract investment and help revive a stagnant economy, and both sides say the plan will bring down prices,- a matter that has led to regulator sanctions and social media protests.

Speedy agreement

The Independent Communications Authority of SA will give an update on the spectrum licensing process and settlement negotiations by September 7, a spokesperson said in an emailed response to questions.

MTN argues that Icasa’s desire to prioritise smaller operators means the carrier will be shut out of bidding for new 5G spectrum. Telkom’s issue is that two bandwidths coveted by the former state monopoly are occupied by broadcasters and there is no plan to make them available.

Vodacom also stressed the importance of a speedy agreement. The carrier, which is majority owned by Vodafone Group in the UK, has not formally objected to the terms of the auction.

“There has been a lot of momentum on spectrum, and a lot of discussions and lets pray that the settlement discussions can yield a result,” CEO Shameel Joosub said. “With the courts, it can drag out for years, ultimately to the detriment of consumers.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa in June criticised the decision to make a legal appeal against the auction, saying further spectrum delays are against the interests of the population.

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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