This time next year South Africans could be downloading their movies and music at far greater speeds than they do now.
It could and should have happened years ago.
The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) says it will issue an invitation to network operators to take part in the long-awaited auction by the end of September – after years of delays.
It says it is in the final stages of issuing an invitation to apply (ITA) for high-demand spectrum and access to the Wireless Open Access Network (Woan).
Spectrum in this context refers to radio frequency used to transmit sound and data across the country by mobile phone.
The new spectrum was due to be allocated in December 2020, but the ITA auction, which had been expected to have been issued back in July, was delayed.
According to Icasa: “The delay was caused by the release of the Covid-19 emergency spectrum, the additional considerations particularly on the viability of the Woan as well as the fact that [its] council was almost inquorate for a period close to three months.”
When will it be released?
Icasa chair Keabetswe Modimoeng says Icasa plans to release the spectrum in the 2020/21 financial year.
“In light of the time lost as a result of the delay in the issuing of the ITAs, the auction of the high demand spectrum which was originally contemplated to take place during December 2020, will be completed by no later than 31 March 2021,” Modimoeng says.
According to Modimoeng, this is one of the most critical and potentially contentious regulatory processes ever undertaken by Icasa with immeasurable economic value for the country.
If President Cyril Ramaphosa had his way, the spectrum would have been allocated a lot sooner. Speaking during a Q&A session with journalists on Wednesday night, Ramaphosa said he had made enquiries into what was behind the latest delay in allocating spectrum.
The president has touted the allocation of this spectrum as one of the key drivers in growing an economy that has been weighed down by the Covid-19 lockdown.
World Wide Worx CEO Arthur Goldstuck says the new spectrum is important and significant to the industry because it means South Africa could see new mobile telecommunications players enter the market. It will also be significant in rolling out 5G, which has the potential to unlock the development of more advanced technologies.
“This means that we can finally expect a 5G revolution to this country all though it is far later than it should have been,” Goldstuck says.
5G is the next generation of mobile internet technology, succeeding 4G LTE, and allows for faster download and upload times, with multiple users.
“The underlying significance of issuing spectrum for 5G is that the existing spectrum which was originally allocated for 3G and was then again, what we call ‘reframed’ for 4G is being used very inefficiently because it is not intended for high-speed internet access.
“By allocating a spectrum that is appropriate for 5G, we start having a much more useful and efficient form of the spectrum and therefore a far more efficient broadband available and that means it is not going to be as expensive for the operators to make use of the spectrum for basic purposes,” Goldstuck says.
He adds that this means all spectrum could be used effectively and efficiently and boost the telecommunications sector and economy as new service operators will be able to enter the market.
“The hope is that by only allocating a certain proportion of spectrum to the operators and having the rest accessible from a wholesale pool of spectrum it will allow new operators and new service providers to enter the market,” Goldstuck says. “However, the problem with this is that they need incredibly high investment to make use of the 5G spectrum, therefore it means new operators will be piggybacking on the incumbents.”
Goldstuck says a more viable solution, for the use of the spectrum in terms of allocation, would be to ensure that the mobile operators have enough capability to provide national coverage.
Rain, MTN and Vodacom have 5G services which are not strong enough.
“You need to be close to a tower to get the full benefit of it. When you are near a tower, especially for Vodacom and MTN, you can get a speed of up to 1GB per second as opposed to 4G speed, [through] which you can [only] get between 5MB and 50MB per second,” Goldstuck says.
Stakeholders invited to finalise ITA
Icasa has invited representations from stakeholders on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the market and any specific factors which Icasa should take into account before finalising the ITAs.
“The delicate nature of the licensing process requires that the authority exercise added caution to ensure full compliance with all administrative and procedural fairness requirements. It is also of significance that the ultimate outcome of the process receives the buy-in and support from all interested stakeholders,” Modimoeng says.
Representations must reach the Icasa by September 16.