Picture: 123RF/SASIN PARAKSA
Picture: 123RF/SASIN PARAKSA

SA mobile customers may be in for better internet speeds and overall better service as the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa), the telecom regulator, has assigned temporary radio frequency spectrum to operators in an effort to tackle communication challenges related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

On Friday, Icasa said MTN, Telkom, Vodacom, Rain and Liquid Telecoms have been allocated more spectrum, valid until November.

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 the companies to cover a wider geographic area with existing towers while carrying more data traffic.

A spokesperson for the country’s largest mobile operator, Vodacom, said the temporary spectrum “will help our network cope with the significant increase in traffic in recent weeks as people stay home during the lockdown and customers connect for longer following the price cuts we announced on April 1”.

In recent weeks, Vodacom’s mobile network traffic has increased about 40%. 

“It also allows us to add network capacity quicker and more cost effectively than having to build new base stations. Once deployed, the additional spectrum will ensure that customers continue to enjoy a seamless experience, while for many it will result in an even better service,” said Vodacom.

Operators applied free of charge for the spectrum as “any prescribed fee that would have been applicable” to the bands was “waived” by Icasa.

Jacqui O’Sullivan, executive for corporate affairs at MTN SA, said the immediate focus “will be to significantly ease the congestion that we are seeing in hotspots across the country”. The spectrum helps MTN to deliver “faster and more accessible connectivity to our customers during this difficult time”, she said.

As part of its application to Icasa, MTN identified “specific sites and broader sectors that would benefit from the temporary spectrum allocation, where we’ve seen congestion building on our network”.

O’Sullivan said: “We have now turned our attention to a four- to six-week radio rollout plan and adding additional capacity to the mobile core network.” Some of the deployment will require additional antenna infrastructure.

Data-only player Rain said it is working with Icasa to ensure it gets access to spectrum that it can immediately deploy on its existing network equipment in the 2600MHz band. This will create more capacity and assist the network to handle the increased load during the lockdown period.

Despite the general sense of progress and positivity from operators, not all industry players are happy with how the regulator has gone about making this allocation.

Fixed-line operator Telkom thanked the regulator “for its swift action in releasing emergency spectrum” but said “in acting with urgency, it appears Icasa has assigned spectrum already licensed to Telkom in the IMT2300 band. The emergency regulation does not give Icasa the right to expropriate currently assigned spectrum. We are engaging with Icasa on this while we continue with plans to deploy the newly allocated bands. We hope to be able to reach an amicable agreement soon.”

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.

gavazam@businesslive.co.za