Picture: 123RF/TOMASZ WYSZOLMIRSKI
Picture: 123RF/TOMASZ WYSZOLMIRSKI

The high court in Pretoria has ordered telecoms regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa), to halt an auction of radio frequency spectrum licences pending a hearing of contentions raised by operator Telkom and broadcaster e.tv.

Monday’s ruling is a setback for top network operators MTN and Vodacom, which are seeking to expand their 4G capacity and to roll out 5G technology.

As part of the court order, Icasa has been prohibited from assessing or making a final decision on any applications for the licensing of high-demand spectrum, court papers seen by Reuters show.

That further delays a process that was expected to begin in March.

Icasa planned to auction about R8bn worth of broadband spectrum — radio waves by which information is transmitted.

The delay undermines President Cyril Ramaphosa's efforts to accelerate the economy by attracting new investment in the sector and creating jobs. He has cited the spectrum auction as an important economic lever for the country's growth.

Operators have been waiting more than a decade for Icasa to release new spectrum licences. Similar legal disputes halted the sale in 2016.

Partly state-owned Telkom and e.tv approached the court, seeking to halt and review the entire invitation-to-bid process and auction until their demands were met.

Their demands, which are yet to be heard by the court, include ordering Icasa and the communications minister to first complete the migration of broadcasting services to digital from analogue by June 30 to ensure certain radio frequency bands used by broadcasters are fully available for use by mobile operators who wish to acquire them.

In his state of the nation address in February,  Ramaphosa said SA will complete its delayed digital migration process by March 2022. This means if Telkom and e.tv are successful in their court challenges, the spectrum auction will be completed only after March 2022.

Digital migration is crucial for freeing up broadband spectrum with the aim of boosting connectivity, potentially driving down the cost to communicate.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) explains that digital compression technology allows for several television programme channels to be carried within the same bandwidth used by one analogue TV channel. Digital delivers an increasing number of television programmes using the same amount of spectrum as an analogue channel, and does so more efficiently.

SA is far behind much of Africa on digital migration and missed the 2015 ITU deadline to switch its signal to digital.

The migration process has faced many problems, particularly political uncertainty and poor leadership as communications ministers were changed several times during former president Jacob Zuma’s tenure.

Judge Selby Baqwa also suspended the closing date for  submission of applications for a licence to operate a wireless open access network (WOAN).

Icasa and Telkom said they would issue statements later on Monday.

MTN and Vodacom did not immediately respond to e-mails seeking comment.

Reuters with Bekezela Phakathi

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