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Spectrum release at forefront of govt’s economic reforms

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MTBPS 2021: The release of spectrum is among the structural reforms the South African government plans to “accelerate”, based on the 2021 Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS).

This, as government looks to promote growth, amid sluggish economic development compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Insights in the 2021 MTBPS indicate the state remains committed to structural reforms designed to lower the cost of doing business and create a more competitive economy.

The assertions are also in line with finance minister Enoch Godongwana’s previous comments, where he’s noted the release of high-demand spectrum as critical to the country’s economic recovery.

In the MTBPS foreword, Godongwana highlights “inadequate broadband spectrum” among the long-standing obstacles that constrain businesses.

As a result, over the period ahead, government plans to accelerate economic reforms for long-run growth. Notable among these is “releasing broadband spectrum, with the auction process starting on 1 March 2022”, says the MTBPS.

“Critical reforms in the telecommunications space have been delayed, constraining innovation and access to better-priced data. These reforms include the release of spectrum through an auction and digital migration, delayed due to recent legal challenges launched by mobile operators.”

Delivering his maiden MTBPS during a hybrid sitting of the National Assembly this afternoon, Godongwana stressed the “speedy resolution of issues blocking the release of high-demand spectrum and making affordable data available to firms and households”.

“I am aware that a lot of work is being done to overcome obstacles to the release of spectrum,” he stated. “Madam speaker, we must ensure the completion of digital migration by March 2022.

“This is crucial to enable full use of additional spectrum that will be auctioned.”

South Africa’s allocation of spectrum has been up in the air for a number of years, with the last significant spectrum awarded 16 years ago. The last big set of spectrum issued was in the 2.1GHz band, which helped the operators in their 3G network deployment.

Unlike its African counterparts, SA is one of the few countries that have not allocated 4G/LTE spectrum on the continent. This has forced local operators to improvise with spectrum re-farming and carrier aggregation.

For the mobile operators, spectrum allocation will help provide faster and more widespread high-speed data services. It’s expected the freed-up spectrum will reduce the cost of data and increase access to the internet.

Additionally, for government, a spectrum auction means a boost to the fiscus.

Just when it seemed South Africa’s journey towards the release of high-demand spectrum was finally moving along, the process was hampered by litigation further delaying it.

The MTBPS document warns the possible recall of temporary spectrum at the end of November by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) will affect the quality of digital services for those working from home and leave millions of households without free access to educational and health websites.

However, ICASA yesterday announced that mobile network operators can apply for provisional spectrum, to mitigate any possible service disruptions.

The regulator notes the provisional assignment arrangement will be in place for a seven-month period ending 30 June 2022, or three months after the termination of the National State of Disaster, whichever comes first.

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