Shock announcement for cellular networks — bad news for mobile data users in South Africa


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South Africa faces a form of “digital load-shedding” if the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) follows through on its plan to take back temporary radio frequency spectrum on 30 November.

This was the stark warning from MTN SA’s executive for corporate affairs, Jacqui O’Sullivan.

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

Icasa first assigned the temporary spectrum during April 2020 when President Cyril Ramaphosa first declared the National State of Disaster brought on by the Covid–19 pandemic.

It said that the spectrum was expected to ease network congestion, maintain the quality of broadband services, and enable network operators to lower the cost of access to consumers.

“The impact of the National State of Disaster has not eased since the last extension of temporary spectrum,” O’Sullivan said.

“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 level which was only dropped to level 3 on 25 July 2021.”

This meant that both distance-learning and remote-working increased with the adjustment to level 4, putting pressure on the network.

“MTN has consistently demonstrated the benefits of temporary spectrum throughout the extension periods,” O’Sullivan stated.

“This has enabled MTN to support a sustained increase in data traffic since March 2020 and to support consumers with lower-priced packages, improved speeds and other benefits such as free data and free mobile money transactions during the pandemic.”

O’Sullivan said that the 165% increase in data traffic since the start of the pandemic has resulted in operators like MTN becoming dependent on this additional capacity.

Without it, they will not be able to meet these high levels of demand while also managing the quality of service.

“With the temporary spectrum, MTN has been able to continue expanding and enhancing our world-class network, we’ve been able to bring more people online, and we have been able to reduce prices,” O’Sullivan said.

“We have zero-rated more than 1,000 health and education websites which are currently serving more than five million people each month, and in the past year, we dropped the effective price of data by more than 30%.”

Removing the temporary spectrum would leave more than five million South Africans without access to zero-rated websites of Public Benefit Organisations.

This would impact access to predominantly educational and health information while we are still in the middle of the Covid–19 pandemic.

“The expiry of the temporary licenses during the course of the Covid–19 pandemic would come at a significant cost to MTN,” said O’Sullivan.

“Operators have spent billions of rands expanding infrastructure to cater for the temporary spectrum.”

Without frequencies to leverage, this infrastructure would be condemned to idleness, O’Sullivan warned.

She added that this would be seen as an anti-investor stance and would come when our already fragile economy can ill-afford it.

“MTN has also used some of the temporary spectrum to showcase the startling speed and capabilities of 5G, not only in large cities but also in smaller towns such as Port Alfred, Hopetown, Virginia, Queenstown and Tsantsabane,” O’Sullivan said.

The withdrawal of the temporary spectrum allocation without Icasa finalising its spectrum auction would significantly impact MTN’s national 5G rollout.

“Mobile operators have a vital role to play in the rebuilding of our nation and supporting our citizens during the course of the pandemic,” stated O’Sullivan.

“To achieve this, it is critical that the temporary spectrum be extended up to the finalisation of the Invitation to Apply to the Spectrum Auction.”

O’Sullivan said that the process to resolve the spectrum auction is entirely in the hands of Icasa.

“MTN simply requests a fair and equal opportunity to participate in securing 5G frequencies so that we can build world-class infrastructure to develop our country and serve our customers,” she said.

Icasa’s spectrum auction is currently the subject of a legal challenge from Telkom and Icasa.

Telkom has argued that the auction can’t go ahead without some intervention from the court while TV broadcasters are still occupying some of the frequency bands being auctioned.

TV broadcasters are still in these bands because South Africa’s long-overdue migration from analogue to digital terrestrial television was not completed by any of its deadlines.

MTN’s legal challenge to the spectrum auction is over an exclusive round that will exclude Vodacom and MTN from bidding on certain lots of spectrum.

MTN is concerned that Telkom, Cell C, or another operator will be able to pick up the spectrum it desperately wants for a steal.

“MTN remains fully committed to the ongoing discussions with Icasa towards a negotiated settlement on the spectrum auction,” O’Sullivan said.

“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 that they trust they can continue to work together to secure a solution that will best benefit the people of South Africa by providing sustained data quality, speed enhancements, and, most importantly, the continued reduction in the price of data.

MyBroadband asked Icasa why it decided to withdraw the temporary spectrum before it completed the spectrum auction.

Icasa said it had taken account of the current environment in relation to the number of infections, the gradual reopening of the economy, and the steady progress in the vaccination programme.

“More importantly, the Authority is mindful of the need to focus its efforts on the permanent licensing of the radio frequency spectrum,” the regulator said.

MyBroadband also asked Icasa for an update on its settlement discussions with Telkom, MTN, and E-tv. It did not respond by the time of publication.


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