Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. Picture: GCIS/KOPANO TLAPE
Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. Picture: GCIS/KOPANO TLAPE

Telecoms giant Vodacom has called on the government to provide more clarity and certainty in the licensing of high-demand spectrum.

Earlier this week, a government delegation including communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, met key stakeholders in the ICT sector, which included mobile operators.

The government says it is aiming to finalise the policy directive on licensing high-demand spectrum by the end of April.

The high cost to communicate in SA has, for the most part, been ascribed to a lack of competition and the “spectrum crunch”. Spectrum refers to the radio signals that carry data over the air, including for mobile phones, TV and global positioning systems.

This is a limited resource mainly controlled by the government. The release of additional spectrum will be key in the drive to diversify and boost competition in the telecoms sector, and subsequent reduction in the cost of data.

A Vodacom spokesperson told Business Day on Wednesday that the company fully supports the spectrum licensing process. “We welcomed the opportunity to meet with the minister [on Tuesday] to highlight the need for new spectrum, which has not been allocated in 15 years. At the meeting, Vodacom made an appeal for greater clarity and certainty from a policy, legislative and regulatory perspective, and also recommended ways to license spectrum in accordance with the law,” Vodacom said.

“As we have previously stated, additional spectrum will go a long way towards helping both operators and consumers through the reduction of network input costs and, by extension, the cost to communicate.”

MTN spokesperson  Jacqui O’Sullivan said the company will work and be guided by the ministry and the regulator with regards to the timeframes of the spectrum licensing process.

“We are encouraged by renewed urgency to finalise the spectrum licensing and we have no doubt the licensing will alleviate the current spectrum constraints,” said O’Sullivan.

‘Both competitive and anti-competitive’

According to Ndabeni-Abrahams, while stakeholders might not agree on all aspects of the Electronic Communications Act, they must strive to find consensus that ensures high-demand spectrum is eventually licensed.

“Since the advent of mobile broadband, spectrum has turned out to be both a competitive and an anti-competitive tool for incumbent network operators and a barrier to entry for new entrants,” said Ndabeni-Abrahams. “Some spectrum lies unutilised or under-utilised in time or space and we would like to change that by making sure that spectrum is effectively and efficiently licensed so as to address not only revenue generation, but also to ensure inclusive participation.”

In a recent opinion piece, Nalo Gungubele and Jac Marais of law firm Adams & Adams, argue that operators are clamouring over the release of high-demand spectrum because of its propensity to deliver next-generation mobile broadband services, such as 5G, as well as enable technologies that are dependent on high-speed internet — such as artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things. 

The amount of harmonised frequency bands is limited, and the “scarcity” is aggravated by delays in the assignment of existing spectrum and increasing growth in data traffic.

Gungubele and Marais note: “The availability of spectrum does not only promise significant commercial gains but can also help in the realisation of social goods, such as increased access to ICT infrastructure to underserved areas, e-commerce, lowering the cost of online activity, promoting the digitalisation of local content, as well as the development of digital skills necessary to bridge the digital divide and ensure inclusive participation in the fourth industrial revolution.”