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ICASA to license more spectrum amid data traffic surge

Samuel Mungadze
By Samuel Mungadze, Africa editor
Johannesburg, 18 Aug 2022

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) is preparing to license more low- and mid-frequency spectrum to providers of broadband services.

The telecoms regulator yesterday published a notice in the Government Gazette, initiating the second phase of the licensing process, saying the continued growth in data traffic necessitated the demand for more spectrum.

The telecoms regulator expects to conclude this process by March 2023.

In the gazette, ICASA says it has decided on a phased approach to the licensing of the low- and mid-frequency bands to enhance competition and increase broadband coverage.

In doing so, the regulator intends to bridge the digital divide and disparities between urban and rural access to broadband networks.

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, data usage has ballooned in SA as most services moved online, prompting authorities to call for cheaper data services.

Interventions by government on the issue include reducing data costs for and expanding broadband access to low-income households.

The government has been driving the development of new models to provide affordable, high-speed internet to low-income households, which includes subsidised broadband.

In the gazette, ICASA says: “The purpose of this notice is to solicit views from interested stakeholders regarding the International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) radio frequency bands the authority intends to license during the second phase of the IMT licensing process.”

The planned second phase of spectrum comes six months after ICASA concluded the initial process in March.

Cell C, Liquid Intelligent Technologies, MTN, Rain, Telkom and Vodacom responded to the invitation to apply and qualified to participate in the licensing process.

The main auction stage comprised 58 rounds of bidding between the six bidders.

At the conclusion of the process, Cell C settled for the 10MHz at 3.5GHz. MTN successfully secured the 2x10MHz in 800MHz, 40MHz of 2 600MHz and 40MHz of 3 500MHz band.

Telkom picked up the 20MHz at 800MHz and 22MHz at 3.5GHz bands, while Rain clinched the 20MHz at 700MHz and 20MHz at 2.6GHz.

Vodacom secured a spectrum portfolio that includes 2 x 10MHz in the 700MHz band, 1 x 80MHz in the 2 600MHz band and 1 x 10MHz in the 3 500MHz band.

At the conclusion of the spectrum allocation process, ICASA said there was one unsold spectrum lot of 2x10MHz in the IMT800 band. This lot was to be licensed by the authority in future.

During the historic spectrum auction earlier this year, ICASA raised R14.4 billion after setting a target of R8 billion.

The allocation of high-demand spectrum by means of an auction is key among government’s economic structural reforms, as the state looks to boost the fiscus.

Now, ICASA says, the regulator is embarking on the second phase of the licensing process with the intention to license the unsold lot.

“South Africa experiences continued growth in demand for more spectrum as a result of significant growth in data traffic. The limited availability of spectrum for IMT systems brings constraints and challenges in the provision of broadband services. In order to address SA’s bandwidth deficiency, the current assigned bandwidth for IMT spectrum needs to be increased.”

The regulator adds: “The main aim of licensing the low- and mid-frequency bands within the designated frequency ranges is to increase nationwide broadband access for all citizens by 2025.

“This will be achieved by increasing universal access and service by ensuring rural connectivity, giving consumers more choice, promoting investment in the sector, unlocking economic growth, ensuring quality of service and experience, and ensuring affordability of services.”