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Malema casts doubt on Ramaphosa’s spectrum auction plans

Samuel Mungadze
By Samuel Mungadze, Africa editor
Johannesburg, 17 Feb 2021
Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema.
Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema.

Opposition party the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has joined the spectrum allocation debate, sounding warning bells that the upcoming auction could be marred by corruption.

Responding to the State of the Nation Address (SONA) delivered last week by president Cyril Ramaphosa, EFF leader Julius Malema raised doubts about the government’s plan, suggesting that graft will seriously impact the planned auction next month.

Spectrum allocation is critical to SA in regards to the reduction of data prices which resulted in the #DataMustFall campaigns. Since 2016, South Africans have been complaining about the high price of data through the #DataMustFall social media banner, and both the Competition Commission and Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) initiated inquiries into data pricing.

Furthermore, for government, a spectrum auction will boost the fiscus.

In October, ICASA opened the invitation to apply for the licensing of International Mobile Telecommunications spectrum, also known as high-demand spectrum, and that of the wholesale open access network.

ICASA also revealed the reserve prices for the spectrum, ranging from R10 million to R1 billion.

However, frustration is bubbling over spectrum allocation as industry and legislators alike bemoan delays in the progress towards the much-awaited auction.

The long wait for spectrum has gone on for several years and the planned auction in March is facing several obstacles, including recent multiple court applications brought by MTN, Telkom and broadcaster Etv.

The spectrum auction has been put under the spotlight in recent weeks amid growing opposition to the process from some sections of the industry.

MTN, Telkom and Etv are all in court challenging some aspects of the process being managed by the regulator, ICASA.

Yesterday, Malema entered the fray. Replying to the president’s speech, he said: “In 2018, Mr Ramaphosa committed to finalise the allocation of spectrum to reduce barriers to entry, promote competition and reduce data costs.

“The same commitment was repeated February and June 2019 and again in February 2020. This process has been mismanaged so much that any effort to license the spectrum will be riddled with corruption, incompetence and not lead to the reduction of data costs.”

In his speech last Thursday, Ramaphosa noted the ongoing legal battles that have ensued after ICASA set the ball rolling for the spectrum auction, but promised the government is making progress.

“The process for the licensing of high-speed spectrum is at an advanced stage. We hope the ongoing litigation amongst interested parties or the licensing measures will provide certainty and will not unduly delay the spectrum auction process that we have decided on.”

Others that have raised concerns have equally lamented that any further hold-ups will affect the cost of data, but proffered different reasons to those of the EFF.

Presenting Vodacom’s quarterly trading update earlier this month, CEO Shameel Joosub cautioned that: “Any further delays to this process will likely have a negative impact on consumers.

“We see the assignment of spectrum as instrumental in extending coverage, improving quality of service and lowering the cost to communicate in South Africa.”

In December 2020, Vodacom was among the six telcos that submitted applications and were shortlisted by the regulator.