What you are not told about additional lockdown spectrum

When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a three-week national lockdown in South Africa, many people realised that broadband networks would take strain.

Millions of South Africans would work from home, and many of them use mobile networks for Internet access.

Shortly after Ramaphosa’s announcement, Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams said they will help mobile networks through the temporary assignment of spectrum.

In South Africa’s spectrum-starved environment, additional spectrum during the lockdown period would definitely help.

But as anybody who has followed South African telecommunications sector for any significant period knows, things are never as simple as they seem.

The country is now halfway through the lockdown and regulations related to the temporary assignment of spectrum were only recently published.

Telecoms operators now have to apply for additional spectrum and also prove they need the spectrum.

To get a slice of this spectrum, operators will have to provide a network performance report, show congested areas, and give network projections during the lockdown.

They also need to indicate the spectrum band they require access to and detail the benefits they will provide to consumers.

Technical problems

Apart from the protracted process of getting additional spectrum, there is another challenge – the available spectrum bands.

Five spectrum bands will be made available for temporary assignment – 700MHz, 800MHz, 2,300MHz, 2,600MHz, and 3,500MHz.

While Rain uses the 2,600MHz band and Telkom the 2,300MHz band, none of the other operators currently use these spectrum bands.

Vodacom and MTN have modernised large parts of their network, which means the radio infrastructure and transmission is in place to use a wide range of spectrum bands.

They will, however, still need to buy and install new radios to use these new spectrum bands in many parts of their networks.

This equipment is procured internationally and paid for in US dollars. The weak exchange rate and international shipping limitations will therefore be another hurdle for operators to face.

Device support

Another matter which people are not told is that their smartphone may not support the spectrum bands which ICASA has made available.

This is especially true for lower-end smartphones in South Africa, which do not always support spectrum bands like 2,300MHz and 2,600MHz.

Unless your device supports the new temporary spectrum bands, you may not see any improvement in performance.

Many people believe that additional spectrum will bring immediate relief, but this is not the case. It can take weeks to upgrade a network if additional equipment is needed.

It is also debatable whether all mobile operators will invest a large amount of money and time into getting access to temporary spectrum if it does not hold a real benefit for them.

To invest in new radios at a high exchange rate, ship them in, install these radios, and roll this out across their network is resource intensive.

As there is no lasting benefit to mobile operators, some of them may use other ways to help subscribers instead.

This is an opinion piece.

Now read: 7 things mobile operators must show before they can get extra spectrum

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What you are not told about additional lockdown spectrum