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MTN, Vodacom laud emergency spectrum; Telkom cries foul

Samuel Mungadze
By Samuel Mungadze, Africa editor
Johannesburg, 20 Apr 2020

As mobile telcos broadly reacted favourably to the decision by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) to temporarily release spectrum, Telkom expressed reservations.

Telkom says in acting with urgency, “it appears ICASA has assigned spectrum already licensed to Telkom in the IMT2300 band.

“The emergency regulation does not give ICASA the right to expropriate currently assigned spectrum. We are engaging with ICASA on this while we continue with plans to deploy the newly-allocated bands.”

Telkom says it broadly congratulates ICASA for its swift action in releasing emergency spectrum.

“The swift allocation of spectrum will be good for the economy as it promotes capital expenditure, enables business activity and education to continue despite the current lockdown.”

In general, other operators reacted favourably to ICASA’s decision to temporarily release spectrum during the COVID-19 lockdown period.

On Friday, ICASA assigned temporary spectrum to Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, Liquid Telecom and Rain.

Cell C didn’t apply for the spectrum, telling media that together with its roaming agreement partners, it will be able to manage traffic between networks.

In November, the telco extended its roaming agreement with MTN, which helps the country’s third-largest operator broaden its 4G network coverage nationally.

At the time, Cell C said, the deal will extend 4G coverage to 95% of the population and its customers will now have access to over 12 500 sites, of which 90% are LTE-enabled.

Last week, the regulator said it had received 35 applications for additional temporary spectrum amid the COVID-19 lockdown, which is for now scheduled to end on 30 April.

ICASA considered applications for temporary spectrum in the following bands: 700MHz, 800MHz, 2 300MHz, 2 600MHz and 3 500MHz, as well as the use of television white spaces.

Reacting to the temporary relief, Vodacom welcomed the ICASA decision, saying “the temporary assignment of spectrum will help alleviate network congestion during the COVID-19 lockdown in South Africa”.

Vodacom’s application for temporary spectrum in the 700, 800, 2 300, 2 600 and 3 500 bands was approved.

The company says demand for data had risen following initiatives launched by Vodacom on 1 April, whereby 30-day data bundle prices were reduced by up to 40%, and the launch of ConnectU, Vodacom’s zero-rated platform that consolidates a range of essential services.

Vodacom Group CEO Shameel Joosub says: “Vodacom remains focused on providing the highest quality network service to all of its customers during and beyond the COVID-19 lockdown period and we will continue to support the South African government’s efforts to flatten the curve in whatever way we can.

“The temporary spectrum which we have been assigned will go a long way towards alleviating network congestion in the coming weeks, and in the event that the lockdown period is extended further.”

SA’s leading telecommunication company has seen a double-digit increase in traffic amid the lockdown.

Meanwhile, MTN says in “our spectrum-constrained country, the only way networks have been able to increase capacity has been by constantly building new and expensive infrastructure”.

Jacqui O'Sullivan, executive of corporate affairs at MTN SA, explains: “We have effectively had to build ourselves out of the problem. More spectrum means capex spend can be reduced. As a direct consequence of this temporary spectrum allocation, MTN will be bringing additional lower cost pricing options to customers, to help ease the financial pressures we know so many South Africans are facing right now.

“We will share details of the pricing as soon as the additional spectrum has been deployed.”

MTN says its immediate focus will be on deploying the spectrum, which will significantly ease the congestion it had seen in hotspots across the country.

O’Sullivan says: “As part of our application to ICASA, we identified specific sites and broader sectors that would benefit from the temporary spectrum allocation, where we’ve seen congestion building on our network.

“Following the allocation of spectrum, we have now turned our attention to a four- to six-week radio rollout plan and adding additional capacity to the mobile core network.

“We will bring the additional capacity online as soon as possible. MTN SA began the modernisation network programme in 2019, to ensure readiness for the much-anticipated release of 4G and 5G spectrum. This leaves MTN well-placed to deploy the spectrum in the newly released spectrum bands.”