One of the key structural reforms I have long argued South Africa desperately needs is far greater access to spectrum. Economic growth is being choked by a lack of data bandwidth at reasonable prices.
Its importance has been ably demonstrated by the pandemic. Under disaster regulations, ICASA granted additional spectrum to the main operators so they could cope with the increased data demand that lockdowns created. In return, operators had to agree to conditions including sending messages on the management and prevention of Covid-19, announcements by the Ministry of Health and Presidency, the provision of virtual classroom platforms to support virtual teaching and access to sites that the Department of Health deems important. All for free.
It is fair to say that this arrangement has been absolutely critical to minimising the impact of lockdowns and the pandemic. Tens of thousands of school learners and tertiary students were able to continue their education; clinics and other healthcare sites could remain connected; and a great many people have been able to book vaccines through the health department’s portal.
The spectrum has also been very important for the economy – it has enabled a great many people to continue working from home. It would have been impossible for people to remain connected without it and many more jobs would have been lost. Instead, the call centre industry, one of the real success stories of our country over the last year and half, was able to create jobs during the pandemic.
So it was a shock when ICASA two weeks ago suddenly announced it would be terminating these licences at the end of November. Without this spectrum, network operators are going to be forced into a kind of digital loadshedding. The timing makes no sense – the pandemic is still with us and we remain in a state of disaster. Indeed, late November could well see the emergence of a fourth wave of infections.
The original regulations noted that the spectrum would be made available until three months following the end of the state of disaster, or at end-November 2020. That second date has been rolled back since then, and everyone had assumed it would continue to be until such time as the state of disaster has terminated. That ICASA would suddenly withdraw this access at this point of the pandemic makes no sense.
It will have a very serious impact on some of the most vulnerable. The Department of Basic Education has been developing a remote learning programme that is intended to reach 1.2-million learners. On the health front, the vaccine programme will need to be able reach people in ever more remote areas, many of which depend on the free cellular messages that have been used in the campaign. Without the free health information that operators provide and any user can access, this will be more difficult.
It is also important to consider the economic impact of the decision. We are currently under Adjusted Level 2 lockdown regulations. These stipulate that employers should continue to allow staff to work from home where possible. The loss of spectrum will substantially change the equation on this – it will no longer be possible for many employees to work from home as they will lose their data access. Employers will have little choice but to compel employees to return to work, with a corresponding spike in health risks, or jobs will be lost. Given we still have 700,000 fewer people employed than before the pandemic, the last thing we should be doing is putting more jobs at risk.
The rationale for ICASA’s decision is difficult to understand. It has a responsibility to consider the impact of its decisions on end users in terms of the Electronic Communications Act. How does it believe its cancellation of these licences benefit end users?
The situation is a reminder of how important it is to deliver permanent access to more spectrum. This process, which ICASA has been overseeing, has faced many years of delay. The latest attempts have wound up in litigation from the mobile operators – and received another setback earlier this month when ICASA announced it had failed to reach an out-of-court settlement with the telecommunications companies that are challenging the auction process.
One of the biggest problems is that the spectrum needs to be opened up by moving analogue TV signals to digital spectrum first. This digital migration has also been long-delayed and is now set to be done in the current fiscal year. A great deal of political will is now focused on achieving it, clearing the way for spectrum auctions and a long-term solution to one of the main chokepoints for economic growth.
In the meantime, though, it is important that emergency spectrum access continue, particularly while we continue to fight the pandemic. Anything else would dramatically escalate the impact of the crisis.
This column is by Busi Mavuso and was first published in Business Day.
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