When the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) licensed temporary spectrum to mobile operators in April, there was a sigh of relief across the industry.
The mobile networks needed this additional spectrum to ease network congestion and help them to maintain good network performance during the lockdown.
What was not mentioned is that this spectrum should have been in the hands of telecommunications companies years ago.
Mobile operators have been begging the government for a decade to give them more spectrum to roll out the latest technologies and drop mobile prices.
Spectrum is the lifeblood of the mobile industry and South African operators have been starved of it for years.
These requests fell on deaf ears, and companies like Vodacom and MTN can only hope that additional spectrum will be licenced after the temporary spectrum assignment lapses.
The fact that this spectrum has been unused for over decade, despite tremendous demand, is a result of government mismanagement and incompetence.
The release of this spectrum would have resulted in more competition, better broadband services, lower data prices, and higher tax revenues if it was assigned a decade ago as planned.
This did not happen, and South Africans paid the price in terms of high mobile data tariffs for years.
The charts below show how the spectrum of Vodacom and MTN in South Africa compare with their international operations.
A lost decade
To understand the frustration from the telecoms industry and knowledgeable consumers, one has to look back at the digital migration process.
Digital migration is an essential step towards better mobile broadband in South Africa, as the process will free valuable digital dividend spectrum.
Digital dividend spectrum – the 700MHz – 800MHz band that can only be allocated once the digital migration in South Africa is completed – can play a key role in reducing data prices.
Because of its lower frequency (in comparison with 2,100MHz, for example) it is excellent to provide rural and indoor LTE coverage.
In the absence of digital dividend spectrum, operators have had to re-farm spectrum and build significantly more towers at great expense to provide LTE services.
The digital migration process started in 2001, when the late Minister of Communications Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri appointed the Digital Broadcasting Advisory Board (DBAB).
On 25 May 2007, Matsepe-Casaburri announced that Cabinet had approved the initial deadline for the digital signal to be switched on as 1 November 2008.
The dual-illumination period was set to run for three years and the original analogue signal switch-off was to be 1 November 2011.
After this announcement, one deadline after the other was missed, which include the ITU’s international analogue broadcast switch-off deadline of 17 June 2015.
Ten years after the original analogue signal switch-off deadline, mobile operators are still waiting for the digital migration process to happen and for additional spectrum.
Other spectrum which was not linked to digital migration has also been caught up in this mess.
The value that this spectrum could have brought consumers and the country has been lost forever.
The table below provides an overview of what happened over the last twenty years.
|Digital Migration Process|
|Date||Announcement or Missed Deadline|
|2001||Appointment of Digital Broadcasting Advisory Board.|
|2005||Establishment of a Digital Broadcasting Migration Working Group.|
|2007||Deadline for the digital signal to be switched on as 1 November 2008. to be 1 November 2011.|
|2010||Review of DVB-T standard.|
|2011||Analogue signal switch-off deadline missed. New deadline is December 2013.|
|2013||New analogue signal switch-off deadline missed.|
|2014||New analogue signal switch-off deadline is the ITU’s deadline of 17 June 2015.|
|2015||ITU international analogue signal switch-off deadline missed. A big STB battle ensues.|
|2016||New analogue signal switch-off deadline of December 2018.|
|2017||A new analogue signal switch-off deadline of June 2019 is announced.|
|2018||A new analogue signal switch-off deadline of June 2020 is announced. The DoC then said the switch-off date was not set in stone.|
|2020||The DoC reveals plans to fast-track digital migration by the end of 2021.|
What is planned next
In May, ICASA published its Final Radio Frequency Spectrum Assignment Plan (RSFAP), which covers the frequency band spanning 470MHz to 694MHz.
ICASA said this will enable the immediate availability of the 470MHz to 694MHz band for Digital Terrestrial Television (DDT) when analogue TV is switched off.
ICASA said this process will also assist in the clearing of the IMT700 and IMT800 high-demand spectrum bands – bands that will be allocated for mobile broadband – sooner than had been anticipated.
This is because the restacking process of DTT services which are currently operating in the frequency bands spanning 694MHz to 862MHz will allow these DTT services to operate in the 470MHz to 694MHz range instead.
The regulator also said it plans to place this spectrum on auction in December – shortly after the mobile operators will lose their access to temporary spectrum at the end of November 2020.
Modimoeng said ICASA believes it will receive ‘attractive offers’ from bidding companies because they will have experienced having this open spectrum and will want to regain access to it.
It was, however, not long before the first delay was announced. ICASA said in July that given the complexity of the process, there are additional considerations it must apply itself to.
“This has resulted in the Authority having slightly delayed the publication of the ITAs,” said ICASA acting chairperson Dimakatso Qocha.
It is currently not clear when new spectrum will be licensed.