ICASA calls on operators to apply for provisional spectrum

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Telecoms regulator the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) is calling on telco operators to apply for “provisional spectrum” as the impasse over the return of temporary spectrum by the authority drags on.

In a statement today, ICASA says it has resolved to invite applications from infrastructure-based mobile network operators for provisional assignment of radio frequency spectrum under the new ICT COVID-19 National State of Disaster Regulations, 2021.

ICASA says it has decided to make available the following International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) bands for provisional assignment, effective from 1 December 2021; ie, 700MHz, 800MHz, 2 300MHz, 2 600MHz and 3 500MHz bands.

All qualifying licensees will have five working days to submit their applications to the authority. Applications must be submitted by no later than 16h00 on Wednesday, 17 November.

The announcement 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 by 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 operators 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.

Telkom was the first operator to approach the courts to stop ICASA withdrawing the temporary spectrum licences. It also wanted the courts to set aside the regulator’s decision not to extend these licences.

It was later joined by Vodacom and MTN, which also filed court papers to stop ICASA from taking the much-needed spectrum the telcos received on a temporary basis after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

ICASA was supposed to auction spectrum in March this year. However, the process was stalled as the telcos again challenged some legalities of the spectrum auction process.

National State of Disaster Regulations

In today’s statement, ICASA says it has 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 bands shall be assigned in accordance with the criteria and conditions stipulated by the authority in the ICT COVID-19 National State of Disaster Regulations.

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

The authority believes it is in the best interest of the public to have a provisional spectrum licensing arrangement in place over the next seven months, says ICASA.

This will enable all other inherent licensing processes to conclude, while mitigating any possible service disruptions, it adds.

“ICASA is not a spectrum-hoarding regulator. All we want is ultimately a competitive, transparent, and all-inclusive spectrum licensing regime and plans are afoot in that regard,” says ICASA chairperson Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng.

“The provisional spectrum licensing arrangement is an improved pro-competitive interim measure but is not a permanent process considering its limited participatory scope. This provisional arrangement is tailored to deal with any network issues which may affect the provision of services to consumers in the intervening period.”

ICASA says operators that wish to participate in this process will, among others, pay an application fee, an acquisition fee as well as the spectrum licence (utilisation) fee in line with the spectrum applied for.

The authority remains committed to permanently license the high-demand spectrum in accordance with the truncated timetable as published on 1 October 2021, it says.

Ongoing saga

ICASA chairperson Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng.
ICASA chairperson Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng.

Just when it seemed SA’s journey towards the release of high-demand spectrum was finally moving along, the process was stopped in its tracks by litigation instituted by Telkom, MTN and broadcaster Etv.

After failing to reach an out of court settlement with spectrum litigants, the North Gauteng High Court last month granted an order to review and set aside ICASA’s decision to publish the invitations to apply for both the high-demand spectrum and wholesale open access network.

On 1 October, the regulator revealed its truncated timetable and roadmap for the expedited licensing of the much-needed spectrum, setting a March 2022 deadline for the licensing of the International Mobile Telecommunications spectrum.

The telecoms industry has been waiting with bated breath for the release of spectrum since president Cyril Ramaphosa promised swift action in regards to allocation of high-demand radio spectrum during the 2018 State of the Nation Address.

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 that 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.

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