During a recent trip to Hermanus, I discovered that Telkom had no native mobile network coverage along the road from Cape Town, or in the town.
As an occasional traveller who lives online, leaving the house with prepaid SIMs from multiple providers is essential. You never know when a network’s coverage won’t be great at your destination.
However, at no point during my stay in Hermanus was it necessary to switch to a different operator.
My initial worries turned out to be unfounded, as Telkom’s roaming agreement with MTN offered solid connectivity throughout my visit.
While Telkom subscribers are not able to roam on the MTN LTE network, its HSPA services in Hermanus were excellent – and more than sufficient for work functions, including uploading files.
Telkom’s roaming agreement with MTN is an example of wholesale access to a wireless network where everyone benefits.
MTN benefits as Telkom pays for the ability to let its customers roam, and Telkom benefits as it is able to expand its coverage without building towers.
Most importantly, Telkom’s mobile subscribers benefit as they can remain connected, even in places where Telkom doesn’t have its own infrastructure.
These kinds of agreements between operators are therefore being encouraged by regulators like ICASA.
During recent hearings held by ICASA, however, industry players said there were a lack of wholesale options.
The government has used this feedback to punt its wholesale open access network (WOAN) plan, led by the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services.
Rather than license new radio frequency spectrum and attach wholesale access requirements to it, the government threatened to take away the spectrum licences already assigned to mobile operators.
Spectrum represents capacity on a wireless network, and as South Africa’s mobile networks have invested billions based on the frequencies they were assigned, they worked swiftly to strike a bargain with the government.
The operators promised to buy capacity on the WOAN, with the understanding that the WOAN won’t need all of the currently-unassigned spectrum.
In exchange, the government promised not to revoke existing spectrum licenses until at least 2028, when they are up for renewal.
For now, the process is awaiting Cabinet approval of a report prepared by the CSIR on how much spectrum the WOAN will require.
It remains to be seen whether there will be a single spare Megahertz for the country’s mobile operators to buy.
This is an opinion piece.