To understand how you have been robbed of faster and cheaper mobile broadband, you must grasp that spectrum is either used or wasted.
Spectrum makes it possible for mobile operators to offer mobile services, and the more spectrum they have, the easier and cheaper it is for them to offer these services.
In South Africa, spectrum has been wasted for the past 10 years – and mobile operators have been prevented from using what is available.
This is the same as Cape Town facing a water crisis, but where the Department of Water and Sanitation prohibits the city from collecting rain water in dams.
As crazy as it sounds, this is what is happening in the South African telecommunications market.
Operators have been begging for spectrum for years, which will help them roll out LTE in more areas and offer lower prices.
However, because of the government’s incompetence and private companies defending their narrow interests, South African consumers continue to suffer.
Central to this issue is the digital dividend – valuable spectrum which will be freed when South Africa moves to digital television.
This process should have been completed in 2011, but it was delayed thanks to a useless Department of Communications and industry infighting.
One example comes from MultiChoice, who wanted to keep competition at bay.
Encrypted digital TV signals make it possible for new pay-TV operators to enter the South African market.
MultiChoice did not want this to happen, and according to GuptaLeaks reports, the company prevented it through questionable payments to ANN7 in return for favours from the Gupta family.
News24 reported that the Gupta family used their influence to persuade former communications minister Faith Muthambi to “controversially push through a decision in favour of unencrypted set-top boxes”.
This was in conflict with ANC policy, which supported encryption.
There are many other examples of how commercial interests and alleged corruption held back the digital migration process.
The current fight around spectrum, however, is even more damaging than the previous battles.
The government now wants to use all unassigned spectrum for its planned wholesale open access network.
The wholesale network is a perfect example of a “pie in the sky” plan, with no concrete funding model or a roadmap of how the network will work.
Instead of using a portion of this spectrum for the fanciful idea, and giving the rest to operators, the government wants to take every megahertz available.
And guess what, the government has gained significant support for its wholesale open access network plan.
The support comes from those who cannot afford to roll out their own networks, or those who do not want to see other operators benefit from additional spectrum.
The truth is that there are only two companies which have the money to roll out national LTE networks using this spectrum – Vodacom and MTN.
This will give them a commercial advantage over their rivals – Telkom and Cell C – and unsurprisingly the latter are in full support of the government’s whimsical plan.
Every intelligent person with knowledge of the government’s track record in the telecoms market will know this project, like all their others, will be a disaster.
But instead of allowing Vodacom and MTN to use the available spectrum to roll out ubiquitous LTE in South Africa, companies with vested interests are fighting against it.
Do not believe for a second that anyone is putting you first, and this includes Vodacom and MTN – they all just want to ensure that they benefit commercially.
The only reason why Vodacom and MTN’s position should be supported and they should be given spectrum, however, is that they are the only companies who can roll out national LTE networks.
Unless Vodacom and MTN get the available spectrum (or a portion of it), you will continue to miss out on faster and cheaper mobile data in South Africa.