The coronavirus crisis and the plan to temporarily assign spectrum to mobile operators offer a great opportunity to the government to stop wasting this valuable resource.
The ongoing lockdown in South Africa means millions of South Africans are working from home. This puts strain on mobile networks.
To alleviate this strain, Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams announced on 26 March that they will temporarily assign spectrum to mobile operators.
This is a positive initiative, but two weeks later the mobile operators are still waiting for the additional spectrum.
While ICASA has published the ICT COVID-19 National Disaster Regulations which include guidelines on the temporary assignment of spectrum, the process has only started now.
Telecoms operators have to apply for additional spectrum, and as part of the process prove they actually need the 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.
Increased investment from operators needed
Making additional spectrum available on a temporary basis is a positive step, but using the spectrum will come at a significant price for operators.
The five spectrum bands made available – 700MHz, 800MHz, 2,300MHz, 2,600MHz, and 3,500MHz – are not used by most operators.
While Rain uses the 2,600MHz band and Telkom the 2,300MHz band, none of the other operators currently use any of the new spectrum bands.
Mobile operators like Vodacom and MTN will therefore have to invest in their networks to start using this additional spectrum.
Many people may assume that modern networks can easily start using any additional spectrum, but this is not the case.
They do indeed have the radio infrastructure and transmission is in place to use new spectrum bands. However, this is not all that is required.
Even with their network modernization, large parts of their networks do not have the required radios to use the new spectrum. These radios will have to be procured and shipped to South Africa.
At the current exchange rates, this will be costly. It is also very challenging to ship equipment in the current global lockdown environment.
Making it easier for mobile operators
The process to procure the required radios, ship them to South Africa, install them where needed, and upgrade the network can take weeks. It will also cost millions.
This raises the question as to whether it is worth it for the mobile operators to spend large amounts of money to use this spectrum for a such short period.
If there is no lasting benefit to mobile operators, some of them may use other, less resource-intensive ways to help subscribers.
There is an easy way for the government and ICASA to make it more attractive for operators to make this investment in their networks, however.
Instead of revoking the spectrum within 3 months of the end of the National State of Disaster, they can allow operators to use it until it is officially assigned.
This valuable resource has already been wasted for over a decade, and it has cost the country, mobile operators, and ordinary South Africans billions.
By allowing operators to use the additional spectrum until the official licensing process is completed, it ensures the spectrum is not wasted.
And as the spectrum has not been licensed yet, no one is losing out on the opportunity to use it. Essentially, everyone wins.
This is an opinion piece.