A lack of spectrum is severely hurting the roll-out of broadband in South Africa, and there does not seem to be a quick solution to the problem.
The challenges in handing out spectrum are caused by slow policy progress at the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services, and the delay in digital TV migration.
On 17 June, South Africa became one of the countries which missed the International Telecommunications Union’s deadline to migrate to digital broadcasting.
South Africa initially planned to complete the digital migration process by November 2011, which shows just how poorly this process was handled.
While digital TV has advantages over the analogue system, the big benefit is freeing up valuable spectrum – which can be used to provide countrywide LTE coverage.
The fact that spectrum is sitting unused means that South Africa is losing billions of rand each year.
It is also not a resource like gold or platinum, which can be mined later. Every day where spectrum is not used means that the benefit is lost, forever.
The graphic below shows the delay in the handing out of spectrum to operators.
Operators ready to roll out LTE-A, but a lack of spectrum is stopping them
MTN said the majority of its 3,500 LTE sites are LTE-A ready. However, a lack of spectrum is hampering its plans to let customers take advantage of this.
“The deployment of LTE-A requires sufficient spectrum to be available to an operator to be able to configure more than one LTE carrier per site-sector to aggregate them,” said MTN’s Krishna Chetty.
Vodacom share these views. “Spectrum constraints is the single biggest hurdle to deploy the service to the SA population.”
Without the needed spectrum, Vodacom decided to launch a limited LTE-A network by re-farming existing spectrum, and only in sites where it could control quality of service to the rest of the base.
While the performance at these sites was good, the speeds could be much higher with sufficient spectrum.
“A lack of spectrum and a very large existing user base forced Vodacom to deploy a limited capability,” it said.
The impact of a lack of spectrum is illustrated by the speed tests below.
Where we stand with spectrum
The Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services said there are policy and technical reasons that contributed to the delays in releasing spectrum.
“At a policy level, the Department is finalising the modernisation of all policies that govern the ICT sector through the Integrated ICT Policy White Paper,” said spokesperson Siyabulela Qoza.
This process is addressing policy gaps that were identified in South Africa Connect, the broadband policy, and in the Integrated ICT Policy Review.
“The spectrum policy is part of these policies that are being finalised. It will be finalised in a manner that ensures that this scarce national resource is allocated such that we achieve national objectives that include ensuring universal access and affordability,” said Qoza.
He said that while the 2,600MHz and the 3,500MHz bands are available for licensing, it is best to license them together with the spectrum that will be released through the digital dividend.
“The digital dividend bands were subject to technical processes of the World Radiocommunication Conference that ended in December 2015,” said Qoza.
He said the licensing of spectrum can therefore only proceed after the finalisation of the Integrated ICT White Paper.