Telkom CEO Sipho Maseko has delivered a scathing criticism of the South African government’s inability to follow-through on the country’s plans to migrate from analogue to digital TV.
“Government has not met a single of its deadlines on the digital migration,” Maseko told Classic FM.
“Not a single deadline.”
Maseko said that South Africa should have migrated from its current terrestrial broadcasting frequencies ten years ago.
“Every deadline that has been set has not been met.”
One of the many touted benefits of migrating from analogue to digital TV signals is that it will free up large amounts of precious radio frequency spectrum. This is known as the “digital dividend” in the industry.
The digital dividend was earmarked early on for use in cellular networks, which means that network operators like Telkom, Vodacom, and MTN have a vested interest in digital migration.
Mobile network operators in South Africa have lobbied for years for additional spectrum, telling government and regulators that the release of additional radio frequencies would help improve coverage and reduce mobile data costs.
For Telkom in particular the digital dividend is very attractive, as the company does not have access to lower frequency spectrum for its cellular network.
Where Vodacom, MTN, and Cell C all have access to frequencies in the 900 megahertz (MHz) range, Telkom’s spectrum assignments are all greater than 1,800 MHz.
Cellphone towers that use higher frequency spectrum create smaller coverage areas and don’t offer indoor signal penetration that is as good as lower frequency bands.
Higher frequencies are useful for building out the capacity of a network in relatively densely populated areas. Lower frequency spectrum allows networks to offer better coverage in outlying areas, and better signal penetration through walls in urban or suburban areas.
The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) included portions of the digital dividend in its plans to auction off highly sought-after spectrum this year.
ICASA set the total reserve price of all eight lots of digital dividend spectrum in the auction at over R2.4 billion. The money raised through the auction would go to the national fiscus.
However, Telkom has raised concerns about the fact that TV broadcasters are still using the digital dividend bands and has launched a legal challenge against the auction. E.tv has joined Telkom’s cause, and MTN has launched its own legal challenge to ICASA’s spectrum auction.
“It’s important that whatever is being auctioned is available for commercial use,” Maseko stated.
“What good does it serve to buy and pay top-dollar for spectrum that is currently occupied by broadcasters that will only be available who-knows when?”
Maseko said that if the auction is allowed to go ahead, network operators will be expected to take a chance that the digital migration will be finished by March 2022 as promised.
However, considering that government has failed to meet any of its digital migration deadlines, any promise about finishing the migration by a specific date is met with skepticism.
Most recently the Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams committed to a series of short-term deadlines to switch of old analogue TV transmissions in South Africa province-by-province.
The Free State was meant to be switched off in March 2021, the Northern Cape in April 2021 and the North West, Mpumalanga, and the Eastern Cape in May 2021.
While the analogue switch-off has started in the Free State, Northern Cape, and the North West, only around 40% of TV transmitters that were scheduled to be shut down have been switched off.
“We are the ones who need the sub-1GHz spectrum the most, [but] actually I would be very reckless with shareholder capital if I went to bid for spectrum, got it, and I’m not able to use it,” Maseko said.
Maseko likened it to the infamous Afro 4000 locomotives purchased by the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa which were too tall to run on the country’s railways.
“I’ll be fired by our shareholders,” Maseko said.
“We have to make sure that we do what’s right for our shareholders, we do what’s right for the country, and more importantly to have an even playing field.”
Maseko said that if the auction goes ahead without digital migration being resolved those networks that already have lower frequency spectrum, like Vodacom and MTN, will storm ahead while Telkom is left behind waiting for digital migration to finish.
“[They] would have galloped ahead and consolidated on the duopoly that exists,” said Maseko.
Maseko said that Telkom’s court case against ICASA came after several attempts to engage with the regulator. Telkom tried repeatedly during 2020 to help ICASA address the wrinkles in its proposed spectrum auction before it started — right up to two days before Telkom filed its court papers.
“I went around the country and spoke to senior ministers about the dangers that lie ahead, and even proposed ways to remedy the [spectrum Invitation to Apply], but I suppose people were in a rush to go away for Christmas and holidays,” Maseko stated
“I was left with no choice but to launch an urgent application so that we can ventilate these matters in the right, open, public forum.”