Freeing up spectrum during lockdown a matter of ‘survival’

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Ahead of the temporary assignment of high-demand spectrum, analysts have emphasised the importance of urgently making the scarce resource available to meet current traffic demands on the network.

This after the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) confirmed last week that it received 35 applications for additional temporary spectrum amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown.

“The authority would like to inform all stakeholders that it is currently applying its mind and analysing all applications to ensure compliance with the criteria and conditions stipulated in Annexure A of the regulations. The authority hereby reiterates that it intends to take the necessary care and ensure the release of the spectrum for use on an emergency basis is fair and non-discriminatory,” it states.

In line with the ministerial policy directions for the coronavirus pandemic, ICASA gazetted regulationsthat prescribe minimum standards that licensees must adhere to for the COVID-19 lockdown.

One of the critical measures is that temporary high-demand spectrum is released for the duration of the lockdown, whose end date has since been extended to 30 April.

The additional spectrum, according to ICASA, will ease network congestion, maintain good quality of broadband services, and enable service providers to lower cost of access.

Connectivity crunch

As day 19 of the nation-wide lockdown rolls on, most South Africans have been working from home during this time, throttling broadband services across the country.

To expand network capability, ICASA has made available the following International Mobile Telecommunications spectrum bands for temporary assignment: 700MHz, 800MHz, 2 300MHz, 2 600MHz and 3 500MHz.

Arthur Goldstuck, MD of World Wide Worx, says that in terms of importance, connectivity comes in just behind health services, food and policing at a time like this.

“It can be regarded as the glue that holds all essential services together. Along with that role, it is also the key to keeping businesses going, to teaching continuing and to people overcoming the human hardship of social distancing.

“However, a vast proportion of the population can only afford the most basic forms of connectivity, if any. For this reason, freeing up spectrum and opening connectivity to the whole population is not only essential, it is a matter of survival.”

Thecla Mbongue, senior research analyst for Middle East and Africa at Omdia (formerly Ovum), agrees: “Data usage is growing considerably during the lockdown as people use data and broadband connectivity in order to work, to entertain themselves and stay in touch with relatives. This puts a lot of pressure on the networks and in order to remain efficient, more spectrum is needed.”

Sabelo Dlamini, senior research and consulting manager at IDC, says ICASA did not have much option but to prioritise spectrum allocation, at this stage.

Other countries such as Brazil, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia are doing the same in response to the COVID-19 threat, Dlamini points out.

“This is a very important response from ICASA as most users in South Africa are reliant on mobile broadband for Internet access, and with the lockdown, the mobile networks will experience congestion due to increased traffic from people working from home and at the same time some using streaming services for entertainment. Therefore, the networks are bound to struggle in providing services; such relief will come in handy.”

Even though Derrick Chikanga, IT services analyst at Africa Analysis, notes allocating temporary spectrum will alleviate pressure on telcos to address the growing demand for connectivity during this lockdown period, he believes it is the permanent allocation of spectrum that will address the long-term challenges affecting operators.

“This is a temporary measure that will only provide temporary relief to the industry. As such, government needs to prioritise the permanent allocation of spectrum which has been long delayed and has negatively impacted progression of the local telecoms industry.”

Arthur Goldstuck, head of World Wide Worx.
Arthur Goldstuck, head of World Wide Worx.

Swift action or lip-service?

Some of the analysts commended the regulator for the “swift action” it has taken to address the telecoms operators’ needs during the lockdown.

ICASA’s swift response should be praised and is a reflection of improved collaboration between the regulator and the players in the ICT sector, says Mbongue.

Dlamini says it’s good to see ICASA moving this quick to allocate the temporary spectrum. However, the challenge is that this may cause more harm than good at the end of the temporary period.

“As the service providers will have to invest in infrastructure and getting customers on board during this period, it is not clear what will happen to the spectrum and their investment after the temporary period,” he states.

For Chikanga, the move was expected, as the country is in a state of disaster and most employees are working remotely and driving increased data usage. “Some ISPs have doubled their connectivity speeds, at no additional cost to the consumer, to cater for the surge in Internet usage. However, ICASA should apply the same urgency in addressing the permanent allocation of spectrum to local service providers.”

Goldstuck is sceptical, saying it is alarming that the reactions of government and the regulator are seen as swift.

When it was announced that the issuing of spectrum would be treated with urgency during the lockdown, the public was justified in being sceptical, he says.

“As far back as September 2018, the president declared that government would take ‘swift action’ on the licensing of high-demand spectrum, and in February 2019 finance minister Tito Mboweni promised in his budget speech to ‘work relentlessly’ with the minister of communications to ensure urgent allocation of spectrum.

“Policy direction was only issued by the minister in July, and the current promise is that spectrum will be issued by the end of this year. With the government presiding over such regulatory sloth, how could we expect any true urgency in emergency spectrum allocation?

“In the same way that it is already more than 18 months since ‘swift action’ was promised on spectrum allocation, the urgent issuing of spectrum announced at the start of lockdown will only come into effect by the end of the original lockdown period. This is hardly an emergency response, but is not unexpected: government has provided ample reason to believe that words like ‘swift’ and ‘urgent’ are merely lip-service when it comes to connectivity.”

Goldstuck believes the country needs a Connectivity Command Council, in the same way the president set up the National Coronavirus Command Council.

This connectivity council, Goldstuck believes, will guide government on immediate spectrum decisions.

“If we had spectrum and connectivity experts guiding government in the same way experts like professor Salim Abdool Karim have guided it on health matters, we would not have the kind of nonsense statements from the minister like ‘implementation of this direction on an urgent basis’.

“The minister has said ‘we should not be reckless’, but the lack of real urgency is the true recklessness.”

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13 Aug
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