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Comms minister throws weight behind ICASA’s spectrum plans

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Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, communications and digital technologies minister.
Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, communications and digital technologies minister.

Communications minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni has backed the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa’s (ICASA’s) move to introduce provisional spectrum and the timelines to apply for the spectrum.

Speaking to ITWeb on the sidelines of the 2021 Seeds for the Future ICT training programme, in partnership with Huawei SA and the communications ministry, Ntshavheni said she supports the telecoms regulator.

The minister also extended her thanks to the telcos for withdrawing the matter in court, to stop ICASA withdrawing temporary spectrum licences.

“I’ve always engaged with them [telcos], and indicated they must give us as a department and the regulator an opportunity to engage with them and that there is no need to go to court because we are all working towards the best interests of the country.”

As the impasse over the return of temporary spectrum dragged on, ICASA said it would provisionally assign spectrum. It invited applications from telco operators for provisional assignment of radio frequency spectrum under the new ICT COVID-19 National State of Disaster Regulations, 2021.

ICASA resolved to implement the provisional assignment arrangement for a seven-month period ending 30 June 2022, or three months after the termination of the National State of Disaster, whichever comes first.

The authority has made the following International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) bands available for provisional assignment: 700MHz, 800MHz, 2 300MHz, 2 600MHz and 3 500MHz.

All qualifying licensees were given five working days to submit their applications to the authority, with applications to be submitted by no later than today at 16h00.

Following this, the authority will consider the applications and make a final decision by no later than 26 November.

Interim measures

The move to provisional spectrum comes after ICASA at the end of August called on mobile network operators to return the temporary spectrum assigned to them at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic by no later than 30 November.

However, this was met with resistance from the operators, which argued that returning the temporary spectrum would jeopardise mobile data supply in SA.

The telcos have largely used the temporary spectrum to launch 5G services and cater for the increased data demand as more people took to working and learning from home.

Despite the provisional spectrum assignment, the authority is still dedicated to its March 2022 deadline for the licensing of the IMT spectrum.

Responding to the March 2022 timeline, Ntshavheni said: “We are confident that the spectrum will be released soonest, and the regulator has committed to us to say they plan not to miss the timelines.

“We are working with the telcos so that if there are any outstanding matters that need to be resolved, they are resolved so that it doesn’t end up in [more] litigation.”

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.

In his maiden Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement last week, finance ministerEnoch Godongwana noted government plans to “accelerate” the release of spectrum, as it is a key pillar of the state’s structural reforms.

During her keynote address at the Seeds for the Future event, the comms minister bemoaned the fact that the last time spectrum was allocated in SA was for 2G spectrum, and operators had to re-farm 3G spectrum.

“The difference with 5G spectrum – that we are going to release soon – it has wide-use, be it in mining, agriculture, manufacturing, tourism, etc.”

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