The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) has announced the resolution to recall all temporary radio frequency spectrum, licensed to operators by 30 November 2021.

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, After President Cyril Ramaphosa announced South Africa’s lockdown restrictions in line with the National Disaster Act, ICASA invited operators to apply for the allocation of a temporary radio frequency spectrum. To unlock connectivity during the pandemic, a temporary spectrum was assigned in the 700 MHz, 800 MHz, 2300 MHz, 2600 MHz, and 3500 MHz categories.

Telkom, MTN, and Vodacom each received 40 MHz in the 700 MHz and 800 MHz band categories. In the 2300 MHz band, Vodacom was assigned 20 MHz, Telkom was also temporarily assigned 20 MHz on top of its 60 MHz it already held in the band category. In the 2600 MHz band, MTN and Vodacom were each assigned 50 MHz, while Telkom was granted 40 MHz and Rain granted 30 MHz on top of its 20 MHz it already held in the band category.

In the 3500 MHz band, only 116 MHz worth of band was available. Both Vodacom and MTN were each temporarily assigned 50 MHz each. Liquid Telecoms was assigned 4 MHz which added to the 56 MHz it already held in the band category. Telkom was temporarily assigned 12 MHz increasing its share, with 28 MHz already held in the band category.

However in the authority's issued statement, Chairperson of ICASA, Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng remarked, β€˜β€˜The Authority’s interventions with regards to the release of the temporary radio frequency spectrum have indeed contributed immensely to the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and to ensure that South Africans were, and continue to be, able to communicate during these unprecedented times. However, the Authority cannot allow the temporary spectrum assignment to assume a state of permanence.”

The Chairperson further says that having allowed operators to use the temporarily assigned spectrum for seventeen (17) months, it is reasonable that they are allowed a further three months until 30 November 2021 as a sufficient winding down period.

Impact on the cost and quality of data

The 2019 inquiry report into the data services market initiated by the Competition Commission, highlighted the lack of available spectrum as one of the primary cost drivers of data prices. Delays to release spectrum requires operators to compensate by increasing the volume of base stations, raising capital and operational costs. The lack of an available low-frequency spectrum further impacts the operator's ability to improve indoor coverage.

In the article #DataMustFall a comparative analysis against continental data operators in Botswana, Zambia,Uganda, Nigeria, Rwanda and Liberia evidenced how unreasonably expensive data services are priced in South Africa.

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