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

When the Covid-19 pandemic reached SA in 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered South Africans to stay at home.

At the same time — in an acknowledgment that millions of locked-down workers, schoolchildren and consumers would work remotely, attend classes online and shop from online platforms — he ordered the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa), the industry watchdog, to allocate additional temporary radio frequency spectrum —  the government-controlled airwaves that are licensed to mobile phone companies.  

In exchange, MTN, Vodacom and Telkom agreed to make their platforms available for streaming public announcements, to provide free access to thousands of educational and Covid-19 related websites as identified by the department of health and to help the government interrupt chains of transmission of the virus by providing location-based services. 

The result of this policy intervention was that millions of people were able to work from home, softening the economic harm inflicted by lockdown restrictions and achieving the public health policy goal of curbing the spread of the respiratory disease. It is not unreasonable to surmise that the economy would have plunged by a lot more in 2020 and more people would have lost their jobs had additional spectrum been withheld.

Sure, the social damage wrought by the pandemic-induced lockdowns on schoolchildren cannot be underestimated. Two longitudinal studies —  in which subjects are followed over time with continuous or repeated monitoring of risk factors — have shown that children in the early grades in 2020 knew 50% to 79% less than their peers in previous years. These gains are difficult to make up, and in young children can be permanent. For older children, falling behind leads to a higher dropout rate.

Still, tens of thousands of others, as well as tertiary students, were able to continue their education online thanks to the additional spectrum. Furthermore, there is a good chance that without those airwaves, the exposure notification app Covid-19 Alert SA would not have got off the ground. 

It is baffling then, and quite frankly misguided, to see that Icasa plans to take away the emergency additional spectrum at the end of November.  

Mitigating impact

At the heart of its argument is that in the circumstances that informed the issuing of  spectrum at the onset of the pandemic it was not envisaged that the spectrum would be licensed on a long-term or semi-permanent basis. As such, it “would be derelict in its duty if it were, by default, to perpetuate what is now becoming an anticompetitive, unfair, and unjust spectrum licensing regime, under the guise of pandemic relief”. 

The temporary licences were initially set to expire at end-November 2020, but Icasa extended their duration six times since. This was in explicit acknowledgment that the mitigation by big mobile phone operators of the effects of the national state of disaster trumped its concerns over the effect of the extension of the licences on competition.      

At the risk of stating the obvious, SA is still very much in a state of disaster, under which Icasa is under an explicit order from the government to relax spectrum regulations to enable the temporary licensing of all available spectrum in bands, including unassigned high-demand airwaves.  

We are fully behind Telkom and MTN’s court application to compel Icasa to continue making temporary spectrum available. The impact of taking away the additional spectrum while the country is still in the middle of a health crisis that could plunge it into harsher lockdown restrictions in the next few months will be compounded by the government’s tardy process in allocating permanent spectrum.  

It makes little sense to expect mobile operators to meet surging demand for data when they have had to make do and repurpose bands historically used for voice calls because no spectrum has been allocated for more than a decade. This is what Icasa should focus on, not on an ill-conceived missionary crusade in the name of competition that will only stifle data consumption and hit consumers, students and the economy.   

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