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South Africa’s Spectrum Debacle – What is Going On?

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Luis Monzon
Luis Monzon
Journalist. Reach me at

Recently, MTN issued a warning that the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA)’s decision to take back the emergency temporary radio frequency spectrum it opened to the country’s telecoms in April 2020 at the onset of the pandemic would lead to a “digital load shedding” in SA.

ICASA is currently planning to close off the spectrum on 30 November 2021. The authority initially released the spectrum in emergency conditions last year to meet a spike in demand for broadband services in the country stemming from the Level 5 total lockdown implemented to curb COVID-19 infections.

As more people were required to work from home, more spectrum was necessary to accommodate the switch. Now, according to Jacqui O’Sullivan, MTN SA’s executive for corporate affairs, the removal of the spectrum would deal a significant blow to MTN given that extra demands from the lockdown are still being placed on its systems.

“Since the start of the pandemic, the amount of data traffic that MTN has needed to carry for its customers has more than doubled,” she said.

“Removing the temporary spectrum, when the pandemic remains a reality for all South Africans and before Icasa completes the spectrum auction, will have a significant impact on data supply to South Africans.”

O’Sullivan continued to say that the impact of the National State of Disaster has not eased since the last extension of the temporary spectrum.

“In fact, since the last extension, South Africa was hit by a record-breaking third wave of infections and was moved to level 4 risk adjustment which was only dropped to level 3 on 25 July 2021.”

“We continue to engage with the regulator in good faith, and we remain optimistic that we will find common ground on this most critical issue,” O’Sullivan said.

ICASA has said that more spectrum will be auctioned off after the emergency spectrum is returned, a promise the authority has been making for over a decade. Recent plans to go forward with the auction have been delayed by legal battles and other disputes.

Other Telcos Join MTN’s Attempts to Settle the Spectrum Dispute

ICASA says that it will give a final update on the spectrum licensing process and settlement negotiations by 7 September, next week Tuesday.

More telecoms in SA have since joined attempts to settle the wireless spectrum auction dispute with ICASA out of court to avoid a prolonged legal battle, according to Bloomberg.

MTN CEO Ralph Mupita has said that mediation efforts are currently underway in order to find an easier way forward. Both MTN and smaller operator Telkom have appealed to courts about the planned structure of the auction.

“Discussions are encouraging and we need to find each other between now and the middle of September,” Mupita said. “We want a solution soon, and we are heavily invested to find it out of court.”

According to Tech Central, MTN argues that ICASA’s need to prioritise smaller operators means that Big Yellow will be shut out of bidding for new 5G spectrum. Telkom, on the other hand, fears that larger operators (like TV broadcasters) are hogging the spectrum and ICASA has no plans to make more bandwidth available.

Vodacom, South Africa’s most popular operator, has formally objected to the terms of the spectrum auction.

“There has been a lot of momentum on spectrum, and a lot of discussions and let’s pray that the settlement discussions can yield a result,” CEO Shameel Joosub said.

“With the courts, it can drag out for years, ultimately to the detriment of consumers.”

Vodacom today announced that it had used ICASA’s temporary emergency spectrum to launch 5G connectivity in the Northern Cape province of South Africa.

It benefits the telcos to push for more spectrum to become available, allowing more users on their networks and in turn, more revenue. Last year, MTN and other companies were able to access the emergency spectrum without the need for an auction.

The returning of this spectrum seems to be leading to a legal battle between at least some of the telcos and government unless ICASA decides to keep the emergency spectrum up for the foreseeable future. If that is the case, expect a similar situation to arise the next time ICASA wishes to take it back.

By Luis Monzon
Follow Luis Monzon on Twitter
Follow IT News Africa on Twitter

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