South African mobile network operators and their subscribers have benefitted from additional spectrum released as a temporary measure during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This followed after ICASA opened access to specific chunks of spectrum with the intention of alleviating strain on mobile networks as they experienced a surge in network traffic.
Vodacom and Rain have already employed the temporary spectrum in their networks, while MTN and Telkom are currently working on implementing network changes to use the spectrum.
However, ICASA has told Parliament the measure is going to be suspended at the end of November, before the spectrum is to be put up for auction in December.
This means there could be a period of time wherein operators are unable to utilise the valuable spectrum for which they have provisioned their networks.
Additionally, if operators are unable to secure the same spectrum during the auction, they may have to make costly changes to their network infrastructure.
MyBroadband asked mobile networks what they will do when the temporary spectrum is withdrawn and how this will affect customers.
Vodacom spokesperson Byron Kennedy told MyBroadband that the company will need to have continued access to this spectrum to cope with the current demand in traffic.
“We are encouraged by ICASA’s plans to hold a spectrum auction before the end of the year as well as to accelerate the allocation of so-called digital dividend spectrum,” he said.
Kennedy said Vodacom customers’ experience will not be affected when the temporary spectrum is suspended as it should be able to reconfigure its network appropriately.
“Radio equipment typically supports a wide range of frequencies within a specific band. A network can be reconfigured through software changes to support new frequencies, provided that they are within the supported radio bandwidth.”
Vodacom employed one of the temporary 50MHz chunks in the 3.5GHz band to fast-track the launch of its 5G network.
Kennedy added this rollout should also be unaffected if the spectrum is withdrawn, as the operator had secured a managed services and national roaming agreement with Liquid Telecom for a national 5G network.
“Vodacom will roam entirely on Liquid Telecom’s 5G network once we no longer have access to temporary spectrum and until we get our own 5G spectrum,” Kennedy said.
MTN said the temporary spectrum uses bands that are currently not assigned to MTN, and the operator had to procure radio units to make use of it.
“These radios are band-specific and cannot be used for other bands,” it added.
MTN has continued to upgrade its radio, transmission and core networks in preparation for its 5G deployment, and is looking to dynamically use spectrum in the same band for both 4G and 5G.
Additionally, it will use temporary frequency spectrum in the 3.5GHz band for its 5G deployment.
The operator said it anticipated the timing of the auction and switch-off will coincide to minimise network disruption.
“As part of our application to ICASA, we identified specific sites and broader sectors that would benefit from the temporary spectrum allocation, where we’ve seen congestion building on our network,” it said.
Telkom told MyBroadband that if the temporary spectrum was withdrawn, it would have a negative financial impact on Telkom and be detrimental to its customers’ network experience.
“Telkom is hopeful that the spectrum auction process will be run in such a way as to minimise customer and network impacts,” the company said.
Telkom said it expected the “new normal” of working and studying from home will continue beyond the indicated return date of the additional spectrum.
Rain spokesperson Khaya Dlanga said the operator was allocated additional spectrum in the 2,600MHz band which enabled it to increase network capacity.
He said Rain believed that data usage profiles would normalise and its customers would not be impacted if the temporary spectrum is withdrawn.
“Rain has procured additional equipment to utilise the temporary spectrum. This equipment can easily be reconfigured to only use Rain’s existing spectrum,” Dlanga said.