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ICASA makes amends with provisional spectrum, say analysts

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Telecoms regulator the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) is making a tacit admission that it erred in withdrawing the temporary spectrum issued to mobile network operators at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

So say analysts, who also note that by now making provisional spectrum available to the operators, the regulator wants to make the process look “fairer”.

ICASA this week called on telco operators to apply for “provisional spectrum” as the impasse over the return of temporary spectrum drags on.

On Wednesday, ICASA said it has resolved to invite applications from 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.

“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,” said ICASA chairperson Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng.

Wait and see

While welcoming the move, the telcos told ITWeb they are still studying ICASA’s proposals and waiting for them to be gazetted.

Says Jacqui O’Sullivan, MTN SA’s executive for corporate affairs: “MTN welcomes ICASA’s decision to extend the temporary spectrum through provisional assignment for a period of seven months.

“MTN will take the opportunity to study the Government Gazette once it is published to fully understand the process and will be in a position to comment further at a later stage.”

Likewise, Telkom, which first challenged ICASA’s move to take back the temporary spectrum at the courts, says it is “waiting for the full gazette to study the details of the course of action ICASA is proposing”.

A Vodacom spokesperson tells ITWeb: “Vodacom is encouraged by the outcome of the ICASA-led initiative held earlier this week regarding temporary spectrum.

“Vodacom remains committed to working with ICASA to find solutions to move the country forward. It is estimated that circa 10 million South Africans have benefitted from the use of temporary spectrum given the significant change in customer behaviour patterns since the onset of the global pandemic.”

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 legal challenges 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.

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

Appearing fairer

Commenting on the provisional spectrum, Arthur Goldstuck, MD of World Wide Worx, says: “It seems to be a tacit admission both that they [ICASA] erred in withdrawing the temporary spectrum assigned at the start of the pandemic, and that there is some urgency required in making up for the long delay in auctioning off 5G spectrum.”

ICASA was supposed to auction the much-needed spectrum in March but this did not see light after litigations from Telkom, MTN and broadcaster Etv.

At the beginning of October, the regulator revealed its truncated timetable and roadmap for the expedited licensing of the spectrum, setting a March 2022 deadline for the licensing of the International Mobile Telecommunications spectrum.

Africa Analysis telecoms analyst Dobek Pater comments that ICASA could extend the temporary spectrum once again “but I think it wants to make the process fairer (or look fair) as the application for the provisional spectrum may be open to all qualifying entities, not only the current temporary spectrum-holders”.

Pater points out that ICASA can generate additional funds through the new application process and new licence fees.

Independent telecoms analyst Spiwe Chireka says: “There is still a real need for that temporary spectrum because the reason it was released was to allow operators to bolster their capacity and be able to meet the growing demand for data services.

“Even though we are at level one of the COVID-19 pandemic, we still have a lot of pressure on the operators’ networks…we are talking about a fourth wave coming, so the war on COVID is not yet over. So to pull out the spectrum at a time when all the networks are facing increased pressure, that will not be prudent.”

Chireka believes there would be notable disruptions if ICASA were to pull out the temporary spectrum at this time.

Huge disconnect

Goldstuck notes the court challenges are justified on the basis of the auction process not having been structured with the needs and necessities of operators clearly in mind.

He points out there was a disconnect between the consultation process and the eventual invitation to apply.

“Ultimately, the auction process is probably not the best model for spectrum allocation in South Africa, the WOAN [wholesale open access network] model has not been shown to work anywhere in the world, and the lack of contiguous spectrum blocks remains a shortfall in the current approach to spectrum auction and allocation. So yes, it's back to the drawing board for ICASA.”

For Pater, it would be difficult for the operators to return the temporary spectrum without a replacement.

He points out the initial idea was to achieve this through the spectrum auction which has been delayed.

“Without this spectrum, the quality of services offered in certain areas or segments of the society would most likely degrade. The reason the auction has not yet taken place is due to legal challenges by some of the entities concerned – Telkom, MTN, Etv.

“However, the auction process introduced by ICASA has flaws and this is the reason for some of these challenges. I think, once ICASA publishes the invitation to apply for the provisional spectrum (hopefully before Monday next week), these court cases will be withdrawn, providing the challengers are satisfied with the invitation content.”

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