The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) has repeatedly failed to auction extra spectrum since 2010. In all three of its attempts, in 2010, 2016 and again in March this year, it has withdrawn scheduled auctions.
Lower data costs and the rollout of new technologies such as 5G therefore remain out of reach for all South Africans.
Be that as it may, Icasa is now also standing firm on its decision that on 30 November 2021 it will withdraw the temporary emergency spectrum it allocated to telecoms companies at the onset of the Covid pandemic. The temporary spectrum was allocated in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the extraordinary increase in the demand for data as homes became classrooms, lecture halls and offices. Icasa allocated this temporary spectrum under disaster regulations to deal with increased demand for broadband on the back of lockdown restrictions.
The decision to withdraw the emergency spectrum before the auction, where telecoms companies will bid for more spectrum on a permanent basis, is difficult to comprehend. That auction was supposed to have been held in March this year but is now rescheduled for March next year. Why not continue with the emergency allocation of spectrum until then? Telecoms companies have committed vast amounts of investment launching 5G services, premised on the belief that it would be. South Africa is being left behind in the fourth industrial revolution specifically because of limited spectrum and withdrawing this sets us further back.
Furthermore, unless Icasa knows something our scientists and health experts do not, a fourth wave of the virus will start hitting us almost immediately after the emergency allocation ends on 30 November.
When announcing its decision at end-August, Icasa said the faster pace of the vaccination rollout meant the emergency conditions under which the temporary licences were granted no longer existed. “The authority cannot allow the temporary spectrum assignment to assume a state of permanence,” Icasa’s chairperson, Keabetswe Modimoeng, was quoted as saying.
Two things from that. First, if the fourth wave is severe and we move to high lockdown levels, will Icasa immediately reallocate the emergency spectrum to telecoms companies? The regulator seems to be taking a high-risk bet that the fourth wave will be benign. Second, nobody expected the companies to keep the extra spectrum permanently, but everybody did believe the sensible thing to do was to keep it in place until either the auction had been completed or the pandemic was truly behind us. With only about 17% of the population vaccinated, the latter is still a long way off.
The emergency spectrum was an important and effective weapon in our fight against the effects of lockdown restrictions on our economy. Issued in April last year, it helped the main telecoms operators cope with increased demand for data. In return, operators provided, at no cost, some extremely important services including sending messages on the management and prevention of Covid-19, announcements by the health department and the presidency, the provision of virtual classroom platforms to support virtual teaching and access to sites that the health department deemed important. It also boosted the vaccination effort with people able to book vaccines from their phones for free.
These measures enabled learners to continue their education online while ensuring that the maximum amount of economic activity that was possible under lockdown restrictions with people working from home was able to happen.
Not only could these benefits cease on November 30 but withdrawing the emergency spectrum will also result in “digital load-shedding” as telecoms companies will be unable to meet current demand. Networks report that demand increased more than 160% since the start of the pandemic and it has not abated since we moved out of the third wave. The speed, coverage and quality of telecommunications will deteriorate.
The delays since 2010 in the spectrum auction itself mean that we’ve had to bear expensive data costs due to the limited spectrum availability. It has also been inhibiting South African telecoms companies from expanding locally through 5G rollout and diminishing their competitiveness against their global counterparts, keeping costs for consumers elevated. These factors all combine to form a significant barrier to our economic recovery efforts.
This column was first published in Fin24.
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