Access to spectrum is a ‘lifeline’, says Cell C CFO

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South Africa’s third largest mobile operator Cell C is going to apply for high-demand spectrum and wants to see the spectrum application process happen as quickly as possible.

This is according to Cell C CFO Zafar Mahomed, commenting on the much-anticipated spectrum licensing process, which could potentially be derailed by the legal challenges that ensued after the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) set the ball rollingfor the auction.

“For us, we want the spectrum because that is the lifeline – that is our position,” said Mahomed. “We want to make sure that we apply for the spectrum and that it [the auction] happens as speedily as possible.”

The Cell C CFO pointed out that spectrum hasn’t been auctioned in a long time, noting that spectrum enables operators to provide the thing that customers want; namely, from a quality network point of view and from a cost perspective.

“Access to spectrum is so important and that is why getting access to it is so important. It gives you the ability to be more efficient and monetise that capacity that you have through spectrum.”

Local mobile operators have been clamouring for access to new spectrum for more than 10 years, as they need it to provide faster and more widespread high-speed data services.

South Africa’s last big set of spectrum issued was in the 2.1GHz band, which helped the operators in their 3G network deployment. Vodacom and MTN were allocated such spectrum, respectively, in 2004 and 2005, while Cell C received such spectrum in 2011.

Since then, mobile operators have had to split and refarm their spectrum resources to mitigate spectrum shortages and expand 4G availability.

After much delay, ICASA announced in October the invitation to apply for the licensing of International Mobile Telecommunications spectrum, also known as high-demand spectrum, and that of the wholesale open access network.

Spectrum allocation is also critical to SA in regards to the reduction of data prices which resulted in the #DataMustFall campaigns. In addition, for government, a spectrum auction will boost the fiscus.

However, last month, MTN filedan application in the Gauteng High Court to declare unlawful, and to review, correct or set aside two decisions made by ICASA which relate to the spectrum auction process.

In December, Telkom filedan urgent court application, saying it considers the regulator’s decisions to be irregular and unlawful.

Although Mahomed wouldn’t be drawn to comment on the ongoing legal battles − saying it’s not for Cell C to comment on its competitors’ issues − he stated: “It is a concern because obviously the customer loses out in the process and it means that it requires more and more investment by the networks, if there are any delays.

“That is what has been happening in the past for as long as it has taken for the auction to happen, but we want to encourage the process to happen as quickly as possible, so that we can get on with the business of looking after our customers.

“You can’t launch a legal challenge to speed up the process. For us, we engage the regulator, we have good relationships and we want it to happen soon,” he concluded.

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