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Cell C, Vodacom join the fray as spectrum row escalates

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Zahir Williams, chief legal officer, Cell C.
Zahir Williams, chief legal officer, Cell C.

Cell C and Vodacom have decried the continuous delays in releasing spectrum, saying consumers will bear the brunt, especially with the demand created by the hastened online migration and need to be connected.

The two telcos raised concerns over Telkom’s latest court action against the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) seeking an order to halt the telecoms regulator from processing the invitations to apply (ITAs) for high-demand spectrum.

Just over a week ago, Telkom approached the North Gauteng High Court to review and set aside the ITAs for spectrum published by ICASA on 10 December 2021.

The application includes an urgent interdict to prevent ICASA from processing any applications until the review is heard.

Telkom’s action prompted other mobile operators, which have waited for over a decade for ICASA to release spectrum licences, to speak up.

MTN fired the first salvo of discontent aimed at Telkom, saying the interdict it sought will further delay the spectrum auction process at a time when the need for expanded access to high-speed broadband has never been more important for South Africans and the country’s economic recovery.

Now, Cell C and Vodacom have joined, saying the move to further delay spectrum allocation is unappealing to the telecoms industry and the public in general.

For Cell C, it is consulting its lawyers and has reserved its rights to oppose Telkom’s interdict application.

“Delaying the process is not in the best interests of competition or consumers, especially with the demand created by the online migration and need to be connected,” says Zahir Williams, chief legal officer at Cell C.

“Cell C notes that ICASA has indicated that the auction design (in the ITA) will make provision for spectrum-sharing, which is an important step for the industry. High-demand spectrum is a catalyst to stimulate economic growth and introduce next-generation technologies that are affordable, accessible and address the digital divide.

“An industry that promotes sustainable investment, effective competition and affordable services to consumers is a win for all.”

Similarly, Vodacom says it is opposing parts of Telkom’s court application and has since filed a notice to oppose with the court.

Vodacom spokesperson Byron Kennedy comments: “Vodacom can confirm that it filed notice earlier this week to oppose Part A of Telkom’s court application.

“We remain committed to an expedited and fair spectrum auction process. In this regard, we have provided guidance to ICASA in our written submissions to its 2021 Information Memorandum consultations, and continue to engage stakeholders as we work towards a successful auction.

“As we have said previously, the award of new spectrum is a critical part of reducing input costs and the cost of data in South Africa.”

Besides criticism from its peers, Telkom’s latest action also hinders SMEs that have been banking on spectrum allocation to expedite their offerings and spur innovation.

Cape Town-based start-up NoPBX says the delays in the freeing up of spectrum is keeping the cost to communicate in SA artificially high and stifling mobile innovation by early-stage businesses.

“Narrow commercial interests must give way to the greater good that will follow in the form of innovation by start-ups and a lower cost to communicate for consumers. Our economy sorely needs these twin boosts, and sooner rather than later,” says Anton Potgieter, co-founder and MD of NoPBX.

“Innovation is the lifeblood of a modern economy. Small firms that can challenge how to do things better can only benefit from more access to the spectrum that powers our data-driven lives.

“South Africa’s spectrum shenanigans are, for example, derailing the local roll-out of 5G, which is essential to keep pace with the rest of the world. The alternative is our local economy sliding further down the array of ease of business, mobile innovation and other critical global rankings.”

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