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Spectrum impasse hurts efforts to rebuild economy, says minister

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Communications and digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.
Communications and digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.

The impasse over the licensing of high-demand spectrum and the wholesale open access network (WOAN) is hampering government’s determination to rebuild the economy, says communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.

This, as the state looks to auction high-demand spectrum as one of the ways to boost the fiscus.

Delivering her department’s budget vote speech in Parliament yesterday, Ndabeni-Abrahams emphasised that the release of spectrum has major economic and social benefits.

“As government, our focus is on economic recovery, building on the successes to restart the economy and stimulate employment by leveraging on the ICT network, digital platforms and data analytics capabilities to deliver economic value for society.

“It must be stated that spectrum, like the land question in SA, is a highly contested space. In our policy and policy direction we tried to address some of the challenges like competition, transformation and opening space for new entrants in the industry.

“The current litigations on spectrum auction and licensing of WOAN hamper our determination to rebuild our economy,” noted Ndabeni-Abrahams.

“We have, and continue to, implore parties involved, including the regulator (ICASA), to find an amicable solution to the ongoing impasse. I believe it is within the industry’s ability to find an out-of-court dispute resolution mechanism and avert the delays and stagnating economic impact.”

Telecoms regulator the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) was set to auction the long-awaited high-demand spectrum by 31 March 2021. However, it was dealt a blow when MTN, Telkom and Etv took the regulator to court, challenging some aspects of the auction process.

Telkom filed its legal dispute for a number of reasons, including that the way the auction is structured will entrench the dominance of its rivals MTN and Vodacom.

Broadcaster Etv joined Telkom in its legal bid. Its argument is centred on ICASA’s plan to auction spectrum in the 700MHz and 800MHz frequency bands, where spectrum in these bands is still being used by TV broadcasters.

MTN also dragged ICASA to the North Gauteng High Court in January, challenging the way in which the regulator intends to license the 3.5GHz spectrum, which it said would result in Tier 1 operators being side-lined in the auction.

Money matters

Ndabeni-Abrahams noted the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT) has been allocated a budget of R3.7 billion for the 2021/22 financial year.

The minister pointed to infrastructure development and investment partnerships and collaborations as being key to taking the sector to greater heights.

She indicated that mobile operators and vendors have collectively pledged R27 billion to expand the 4G network and deploy 5G and fibre technologies in SA, some of which is already being tested by operators.

“This network expansion is also extending to rural and underserved areas, which will benefit communities and create jobs. As such, I hope the licensing of the WOAN and the high-demand spectrum will complement these rollout plans.”

Turning to government’s plans to connect 80% of public buildings to broadband by 2024, she said the DCDT’s entities will connect 6 687 sites across the country.

“As part of the Presidential Employment Stimulus Initiative, we have, in collaboration with the Presidency, submitted a bid for funding to support digital access for low-income households and stimulate job creation and economic growth through household broadband connectivity and public WiFi access.

“It is hoped that the funding of R340 million can be made available for the programme to commence in the current financial year, and we will roll out in both township and rural areas.

“USAASA will proceed with the connectivity of OR Tambo [District Municipality], and as such, an amount of R60 million has been allocated.”

According to Ndabeni-Abrahams, her department is working closely with the Competition Commission, ICASA and mobile network operators to monitor and reduce the cost to communicate, especially data.

“There has been a reduction of data by all mobile operators by 33%, with the average 1GB data costing R99 or less. The department will continue to monitor this, to ensure not only further reduction of costs but also ensure good quality of services.”

She noted the department has allocated R3 million for the cost to communicate programme. Furthermore, it has allocated R9.5 million for the digital skills initiative.

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