Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. Picture: SIYABULELA DUDA
Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. Picture: SIYABULELA DUDA

The government has instructed industry regulator the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) to issue new spectrum  to telecom operators on a temporary basis to expand the network during the nationwide lockdown.

This is in anticipation of the expected rise in communication as South Africans starts a 21-day lockdown from Friday until mid-April in a bid to reduce the rapid transmission of the coronavirus outbreak.

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

On Thursday, communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams gazetted interventions that the department will make to alleviate the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on  the communications and digital technologies sector.

 “The authority must prioritise the regulatory framework applicable to the management and licensing of radio frequency spectrum that would enable implementation of this direction on an urgent basis.”

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.

“To the extent possible, the authority must relax spectrum regulations to enable the temporary licensing of all available spectrum bands including the unassigned high demand spectrum for the duration of the Covid-19 national disaster,” said the department.

“The temporary assignment of the unassigned high demand frequency spectrum must be focused on those licensees that would be able to implement and use unassigned frequency spectrum for duration of the Covid-19 national disaster on expeditious basis. Frequency co-ordination and planning will be necessary to effect this assignment.” 

The minister has also made provision that a service provider of electronic communications networks or services “must, when requested to do so, rapidly deploy temporary electronic communications networks and services in areas identified after consulting with the relevant ministers”.

In addition to allocating spectrum, Icasa is to keep a register of all infrastructure and network facilities built and installed in response to the Covid-19 disaster.

The two largest mobile network operators, MTN and Vodacom, have both welcomed the decision to make additional spectrum available.

It is still unclear how the practical implantation of this plan will be done. That work will likely be up to Icasa.

The minister has further directed electronic communications service providers, who she says are the main users of high demand spectrum to make available connectivity to 104 district virtual classroom platforms with minimum speeds of 10Mbps to support virtual teaching during the Covid-19 national disaster.