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

SA’s telecoms regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa), has assigned temporary radio frequency spectrum to mobile operators in an effort to address communication challenges during the Covid-19 national state of disaster, it said on Friday.

Last week, Icasa said it had received about 35 applications for the temporary allocation.

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 them to cover a wider geographical area with existing towers while carrying more data traffic.

“I would really like to express my deepest gratitude to all applicants and licensees alike; and I believe the spectrum will be used efficiently as well as optimally for the benefit of all South Africans,” Icasa acting chair Keabetswe Modimoeng said in a statement. “This will indeed bridge the communications divide during this difficult period of our lifetime.”

The government recently gazetted regulations for the allocation. It instructed Icasa in March to issue new spectrum to telecom operators on a temporary basis to expand their networks and cater for a surge in demand as companies work remotely during the nationwide lockdown.

Only 17 applicants were found to be in line with the criteria and conditions set out by Icasa, which requires a network performance report with currently held spectrum and a justification of how the additional allocation will improve that performance.

Icasa said it has decided to make the following spectrum bands available for temporary assignment: 700MHz, 800MHz, 2,300MHz, 2,600MHz and 3,500MHz.

Low frequency bands below 1,000MHz tend to be good for covering a wide area, where higher frequency bands are good for carrying larger amounts of data traffic or capacity.

There was much demand for the 700MHz and 800MHz bands, but the regulator said the challenge is that television broadcasters still occupy this spectrum, a result of the long, drawn-out digital migration process, yet to be completed after more than a decade.

MTN, Telkom and Vodacom have therefore been given 40MHz each. In the 2,300MHz band, Telkom and Vodacom have each been assigned 20MHz. 

MTN, Rain, Vodacom and Telkom have been assigned a total of 170MHz in the 2,600MHz band, identified as being good for 5G mobile connectivity.

In the 3,500MHz band, another one idetified as being good for 5G, Telkom, Vodacom, MTN and Liquid Telecoms have been assigned a total 116MHz. 

Icasa said the companies assigned spectrum must ensure they support and create virtual teaching and classrooms as determined by the government in various districts during the disaster period. Operators must also “zero-rate all Covid-19 sites as identified from time to time by the department of health and published in the Government Gazette”.

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.

Spectrum issued under these new guidelines will be valid until the end of November 2020.

gavazam@businesslive.co.za