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Telcos set to get temporary spectrum during lockdown

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 26 Mar 2020

Telecommunications regulator the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) is working with telcos to ensure a short-term spectrum relief plan as the country enters a lockdown for the next three weeks.

Addressing a media briefing about COVID-19 yesterday in Pretoria, communications and digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams said government will issue new frequency spectrum to the country’s telecoms operators on a temporary basis to expand the network during the nationwide lockdown.

In her speech, the minister said the department has a responsibility to get the people of SA communicating.

“Through access, one envisages a situation where there will be too much traffic on the network. It is important to provide capability to those that are providing the networks,” she said.

“It is in this context that ICASA, our regulator, is considering, among other things, ensuring that we will provide spectrum relief to those that must, therefore, provide these (access) services. As they will be providing that relief – it has to be done in accordance with the law, taking into consideration what is it that we want to achieve but most importantly, being able to keep track of the infrastructure that will be rolled out, so that by the time we get out of this dilemma, the spectrum goes back, if possible.”

Easing congestion

In a statement to ITWeb, the regulator says: “Indeed, ICASA is currently engaging with sector licensees on possible ways of radio frequency spectrum relief for the duration of the declared state of disaster.

“This is mainly to ease congestion, ensure good quality of broadband services, and to enable licensees to lower cost of access to consumers, particularly in relation to education, emergency and other social services.”

Mobile operators have been waiting for years for allocation of spectrum in order to provide faster and more widespread high-speed data services.

The COVID-19 outbreak has resulted in a massive spike in data traffic, with more people working or learning from home.

Nonetheless, the operators have welcomed the move to provide spectrum relief during the 21-day lockdown.

Vodacom spokesperson Byron Kennedy told ITWeb the company is aware of comments made yesterday by Ndabeni-Abrahams regarding the temporary allocation of spectrum to assist with network resilience during the COVID-19 enforced shutdown.

“Vodacom reiterates its support for governments in countries where it operates and is committed to doing what it can to assist during this unprecedented health crisis. We will be engaging with the regulator to gain access to spectrum on a temporary basis as well as quicker access to sites and the expedition of approvals for wayleaves, property leases and power supply for new infrastructure.

“These will help us cope with the increased volume of traffic, which will ultimately ensure people working from home enjoy a seamless experience. We will be in a position to comment further on the spectrum matter after the detail is published in the Government Gazette,” says Kennedy.

Vodacom says it has seen a significant increase in traffic over both its mobile and fixed networks, as South Africans have started working from home and practice physical distancing in light of the current COVID-19 national emergency.

“South Africa is beginning its national lockdown at midnight on Thursday this week, and Vodacom expects traffic to increase even further. In other European markets impacted by COVID-19, data traffic over networks has already increased by as much as 50%,” says Kennedy.

“Vodacom is now faced with a situation where we need to deal with increased traffic on our network as more people observe COVID-19 protocols and work from home.

“Our focus at the moment is ensuring we have measures in place to respond to current societal challenges through our social contract. Vodacom has also taken a decision to significantly ramp up investment spend in the short-term to help manage network congestion. We have emphasised our willingness and commitment to assist governments where we operate and do whatever we can to help through this health crisis.”

Go for LTE

Jacqui O’Sullivan, executive for corporate affairs at MTN South Africa, says: “MTN welcomes the decision by the Department of Communication and Digital Technologies to temporarily allocate spectrum during the national lockdown.

“We await further details as to how we can best make use of this allocation to serve our customers.

“With regards to the network capacity, we continuously monitor our end-to-end network capacity throughout the entire network operation; for optimal experience we encourage our customers to use LTE devices.

“We have several measures in place to deal with various scenarios. To assist us in maintaining network uptime, we appeal to the public to report theft and vandalism of our infrastructure.”

It all depends…

SA’s third biggest mobile operator Cell C says it is not yet clear what spectrum the government will be allocating.

The operator says if 700/800MHz or 2 600MHz is allocated, Cell C’s current hardware will not be able to utilise this allocation.

“The announcement by government is a temporary measure in response to the current COVID-19 pandemic. What is needed going forward is for wholesale regulations to be implemented. As more spectrum is allocated to the bigger players in the market, their efficiencies will improve and those efficiencies will filter down to their wholesale customers and consumers at large,” says Cell C.

The operator says it has seen an increase in voice traffic. “We have capacity on our network and will continue to monitor the trends and see if there are any notable shifts.

“As part of Cell C’s turnaround strategy implemented in the first quarter of 2019, we are shifting from a build and buy strategy with high capital expenditure to a roaming model. Our supply chain related to our current infrastructure remains unaffected and we are comfortable that together with our roaming agreement with MTN we will not see any disruptions.”

Telkom says it believes the release of spectrum should be done to promote competition. “These extraordinary times require bold measures to protect South Africa’s people and where possible, enable parts of the economy to continue to operate.

“Telkom, therefore, supports the temporary release of spectrum for all legitimate measures to help South Africa deal with COVID-19. The temporary assignment must also consider the desired post-COVID-19 market structure. We wait to be guided by ICASA on the next steps to make this a reality.”