Cellphone network quality will suffer in South Africa without more spectrum

If the government and ICASA don’t release radio frequency spectrum in the next 6-12 months, there will be congestion on the country’s mobile networks.

This is according to Rob Shuter, the group president and CEO of MTN. “Spectrum is the lifeblood of a mobile operator,” said Shuter.

He said in many markets, low-band spectrum previously used by analogue TV broadcasts, known as the digital dividend, has been auctioned and is live.

In South Africa, the digital migration process has been delayed for years, thanks to, in part, the issue of set-top box control and the encryption of free-to-air TV signals.

Digital dividend spectrum is at lower frequencies than the capacity in the 900MHz band, which is what most mobile operators in South Africa received to roll out voice services, said Shuter.

This makes it suitable for covering large areas with a single tower, which means it is well suited to rolling out better rural mobile coverage.

The delay in the release of South Africa’s digital dividend has also held up the release of spectrum in the 2,600MHz band, as the government wishes to assign the bands at the same time.

Spectrum demand

This raises the question: without more spectrum, what can operators do to increase capacity on their networks?

Shuter said the only other option is to spend a lot on capital expenditure to densify their sites.

However, not only is this expensive – which means it drives up data prices – in many areas it is impractical to do so.

Residents don’t always want multiple towers going up in their suburbs, while building more towers in certain locations is prohibitively expensive or dangerous.

The easiest way to ensure mobile network quality can be maintained, or improved, is for the government to release more spectrum.

Now read: We need spectrum to cover rural South Africa – Vodacom

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Cellphone network quality will suffer in South Africa without more spectrum