The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) has said that it does not wish to extend temporary radio frequency licences given to mobile networks beyond 31 May 2021.
This is bad news for South African mobile subscribers, as South Africa’s mobile network operators have long maintained that for prices to continue coming down, new spectrum needs to be released.
Temporary spectrum licences were given to South Africa’s mobile network operators as part of COVID-19 disaster regulations issued in response to the national state of disaster declared by President Cyril Ramaphosa on 15 March 2020.
ICASA said that the objective of the temporary spectrum was to enable operators to deal with the anticipated rise in demand for network capacity or data services as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was also to allow network operators and service providers to enhance their current services.
ICASA extended the validity of the temporary spectrum licences after it became clear that it would not be able to conduct its planned auction for high-demand radio frequency spectrum by the end of December 2020.
It extended the temporary licences again when the High Court interdicted it from conducting the auction as planned.
The interdict was as a result of legal action brought by Telkom against ICASA.
Telkom objected to the process ICASA followed, and raised concerns over the fact that some of the frequency bands ICASA wants to auction still contain analogue TV signals which must first be switched off after South Africa finishes its migration to digital terrestrial TV broadcasting.
Telkom also said that ICASA is not doing enough to tackle the dominance of Vodacom and MTN with the spectrum auction.
In addition to the case brought by Telkom, MTN has launched a legal challenge of its own over the way ICASA proposes to auction off the precious high-demand spectrum.
MTN objected to ICASA’s plan to exclude it and Vodacom from the first round of the auction.
The network operator warned that this could result in smaller network operators picking up the spectrum the bigger players need for much cheaper than Vodacom and MTN would have been willing to pay.
If this were to happen, it would also discourage the larger cellphone networks from participating in the auction at all, causing South Africa’s fiscus to lose out on the capital they would have been willing to spend on spectrum.
Vodacom has disagreed with MTN, saying that there is a compromise to be made between the bigger players and ICASA without going to court.
As a result of these court cases, ICASA said it does not wish to extend the temporary spectrum licences issued in response to the national state of disaster any longer.
“The Authority does not intend to further extend the expiry date of the temporary radio frequency spectrum licences beyond 31 May 2021 due to the issues raised in the pending litigation and the interim interdict which has been granted against it,” ICASA stated.
ICASA has invited public comment on whether it should extend the temporary spectrum licences, together with several other questions such as whether and how operators should be allow to pool their spectrum together.
The regulator has said that written comments must reach it before 16h00 on 7 May 2021.