South Africa’s cellular networks meeting to settle emergency spectrum fight

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The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) has called a meeting with South Africa’s mobile network operators to settle an acrimonious dispute over precious cellular network capacity.

TechCentral reported on Saturday that Icasa hopes to broker an agreement before the matter heads to court on 16 November.

Icasa is currently facing legal challenges from Telkom and MTN, which filed papers in the Pretoria High Court when the regulator announced plans to claw back radio frequency spectrum assigned at the start of South Africa’s Covid–19 epidemic as an emergency measure.

Spectrum represents raw network capacity and is the lifeblood of wireless carriers, especially mobile network operators.

Icasa instructed network operators to give back the spectrum by 30 November, and gave them three months to decommission the services they launched in the temporary frequency bands.

To de-escalate the situation, Icasa CEO Willington Ngwepe reportedly sent letters to Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, Cell C, Liquid Intelligent Technologies, and Rain, inviting them to an online meeting on Monday at 14:00.

MyBroadband has independently confirmed that the meeting is taking place.

Willington Ngwepe, Icasa CEO

Icasa has proposed an amendment to the current Covid–19 regulations that radio frequency spectrum issued on an emergency basis be re-issued under a new “provisional assignment” scheme.

The new applications will cover the 700MHz, 800MHz, 2300MHz, 2600MHz and 3500MHz spectrum bands.

Icasa’s proposal is in-line with communications minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni’s comments in October that government was considering “interim” spectrum assignments to bridge the gap between the end of November and March next year.

March 2022 is a significant date because that’s when Icasa hopes to have concluded an auction and licensing for the sought-after spectrum.

Ntshavheni explained at the time that many legal complexities need to be navigated for such an interim spectrum proposal, and that Icasa would have to agree to it.

The temporary spectrum was assigned in April 2020 to help mobile networks cope with the anticipated influx of data traffic on their networks as people were told to isolate themselves at home.

Icasa handed out unused spectrum without going through the usual formal application process.

As expected, data traffic on South Africa’s mobile networks grew substantially.

Khumbudzo Ntshavheni
Khumbudzo Ntshavheni

MTN told MyBroadband that over the last 18-months, data consumption on its network has more than doubled in volume.

The operator said data volumes jumped during the initial Alert Level 5 lockdown restrictions, especially in the day, compared to pre-lockdown trends.

Even as lockdown restrictions eased, the growth in traffic on its network continued to increase, MTN said.

Vodacom said that it saw the same trend on its network.

Telkom told MyBroadband that its mobile network data traffic jumped from almost 72 petabytes (1.024 million gigabytes) in March 2020 to more than 87PB in April 2020.

“This set a new growth baseline in the network, with four months in 2021 exceeding 85PB by August 2021,” said Telkom.

“On average, the monthly data traffic on Telkom Mobile’s network has grown approximately 70% year-on-year compared with pre-Covid–19 levels.”

Even though demand for data remains high, and that experts forecast that South Africa would experience a fourth wave of Covid–19 from the start of December, Icasa announced that it was taking back the temporary spectrum.

At the same time, Icasa conceded defeat in its legal battle with Telkom, MTN, and E-TV owner eMedia over specifics in its plans to permanently licence the spectrum.

MTN, Telkom, and Vodacom immediately warned that Icasa’s decision to take back the temporary spectrum would have dire consequences.

Icasa doubled down on its decision, setting the stage for another set of legal battles with Telkom and MTN.

Not all network operators agree, though.

Rain has backed Icasa, saying that there is a danger that the temporary spectrum assignments would become de facto permanent as Icasa’s attempts to licence spectrum permanently are constantly being challenged in court.

Rain explained that Icasa handed out the emergency spectrum without considering the competitive implications for South Africa’s cellular industry because it was always meant to be temporary.

For example, Rain was at a disadvantage because it did not ask for lower frequency 700MHz and 800MHz spectrum, which the major players in the market are now hoarding.

If the temporary assignments effectively become permanent, Rain will be at a significant disadvantage to established operators like Vodacom, MTN, and Telkom.

Rain said that one of the compromises it would consider is asking operators to re-apply for the temporary spectrum.

This way, Rain and Telkom could have a chance to gain access to lower frequency spectrum that they don’t currently have.


Now read: Michael Jordaan answers tough questions about Rain’s spectrum fight

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