The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) licensed temporary spectrum to Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, Rain, and Liquid Telecom in April.
The temporary spectrum is aimed at easing network congestion and help mobile operators to maintain the quality of their broadband services and lower the cost of access to consumers.
Five spectrum bands were made available for temporary assignment: 700MHz, 800MHz, 2,300MHz, 2,600MHz, and 3,500MHz.
This temporary free spectrum will be closed at the end of November and will be then be placed on auction in December 2020.
ICASA’s acting chairperson Keabetswe Modimoeng said ICASA will get “attractive offers” from bidding companies because they will have “experienced open spectrum” and will want to regain access.
The table below provides an overview of the temporary spectrum mobile operators have received.
What mobile operators are doing with the spectrum
While the spectrum has been licensed in April, most mobile operators are yet to use it as part of their commercial networks.
The main reason for the delay is that most of the new spectrum bands – 700MHz, 800MHz, 2,300MHz, 2,600MHz, and 3,500MHz – are not currently used by operators.
This means despite having modernised large parts of their networks, mobile operators still needed to buy and install new radios and related equipment to use these new spectrum bands.
This equipment is procured internationally and paid for in US dollars, which means the weak exchange rate and international shipping limitations pose additional problems.
Delays in bringing some 5G equipment into South Africa, for example, have pushed back MTN’s planned 5G launch date.
MyBroadband asked the mobile operators where they stand with using the new spectrum – here is what they said.
MTN has started rolling out temporary spectrum on various bands after the operator received expedited radio units from vendors.
MTN added that it has continued to upgrade its network. “We have proactively been modernising our radio network and have also upgraded all elements in the value chain,” the company said.
MTN focussed on upgrading its transmission and core networks that are an integral part of a 5G network. Its core network has been upgraded to be 3GPP Release 15 compliant.
Since then, MTN has been looking at the opportunity to dynamically use spectrum for 4G and 5G in the same mobile band.
“We will use the temporary spectrum to provide relief for LTE capacity in data hotspots identified,” MTN said.
“The 3.5GHz band is a key 5G band and we will also do some deployments in this band,” it said.
The company highlighted that the temporary spectrum is in bands that are currently not assigned to MTN.
“These radios are band-specific and cannot be used for other bands. MTN did not have these radios and had to procure the radio units to make use of the temporary spectrum,” it said.
Telkom told MyBroadband it is in the process of planning and deploying the temporary spectrum allocated by ICASA, in line with the spectrum application submission.
“We’ve also implemented other interventions that have had a positive impact on our network and customer experience, through network resource and utilisation improvements,” Telkom said.
Rain CEO Willem Roos told MyBroadband they have been allocated temporary spectrum in the 2,600MHz band.
The frequencies which ICASA allocated to Rain were, however, not what they asked for and are not suitable for rapid deployment with their current radios.
This issue could have been rectified by rearranging the temporary frequency allocation in the band.
Rain engaged with ICASA to address the issue, but in spite of their efforts, they could not convince the regulator to relook at the band planning.
This means Rain has to procure new radios to use the new spectrum – a process which they are currently busy with.
Vodacom said the temporary spectrum has helped them to support the significant increase in network traffic.
Not all the new spectrum could, however, be used nationally. Vodacom spokesperson Byron Kennedy explained that it can only use parts of the 140MHz of temporary spectrum.
“The 700MHz and 800MHz bands are still occupied by analogue broadcasting, and so cannot be used across large portions of the country as yet,” said Kennedy.
Vodacom made use of the 1 x 50MHz in the 3.5GHz band to fast-track its 5G launch and support its initial rollout.
“To cope with the current demand in traffic, we will need continued access to spectrum,” Kennedy said.
“We are encouraged by ICASA’s plans to hold a spectrum auction before the end of the year as well as to accelerate the allocation of so-called digital dividend spectrum.”
Liquid Telecom South Africa CEO Reshaad Sha said they have been assigned only 4MHz of additional spectrum adjacent to their existing assignment.
“We are using that spectrum to supplement our existing spectrum to optimize our network to meet the increased demand by our customers,” said Sha.
It also helped the company to sustain continuity of connectivity, as well as support efforts to combat and minimize the impact of the COVID 19 Pandemic.