Telkom sues Icasa to stop data “calamity” in South Africa

Telkom has approached the North Gauteng High Court to block the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) from taking back emergency spectrum assigned at the start of the Covid–19 pandemic.

Radio frequency spectrum is the raw capacity cellular network operators like Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, Cell C, and Rain use to offer services.

It enables communication between their towers and devices like smartphones and Wi-Fi routers.

The essence of Telkom’s argument is that the temporary spectrum must remain in place for the duration of South Africa’s national state of disaster due to Covid–19.

This comes after Icasa surprised the telecommunications industry last month when it announced plans to take back the emergency spectrum at the end of November.

Icasa assigned the spectrum at the start of South Africa’s national state of disaster to help network operators cope with the surge in demand for data during the Covid–19 lockdown.

Last month, it surprised the telecommunications industry when Icasa announced plans to take back the spectrum at the end of November.

While the spectrum assignments were always temporary, the industry was confounded that Icasa would take it back when experts forecast that South Africa would experience a fourth wave of Covid–19 from the start of December.

Icasa chair Keabetswe Modimoeng said during a recent interview on Newzroom Afrika that they believe the situation in South Africa has changed enough to justify clawing back the spectrum.

“Traffic is piling up on the roads… it illustrates an economy that is gradually going back to normal, so we cannot have a hard-lockdown relief measure [perpetuated],” said Modimoeng.

He said that Icasa believes mobile networks will continue operating on their existing permanent spectrum assignments.

“We are not where we were in March or even in June of last year,” Modimoeng stated.

Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng, ICASA Executive Chair
Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng, ICASA Executive Chair

However, feedback from South Africa’s mobile network providers painted a very different picture.

Cell C, MTN, Telkom, and Vodacom explained that their network traffic volumes had remained high throughout the pandemic.

The three that operate their own networks—MTN, Telkom, and Vodacom—have also warned that removing the temporary spectrum at this stage would have disastrous effects on the quality of their networks.

Telkom group executive for regulatory affairs Siyabonga Mahlangu told MyBroadband that it might result in a calamity if Icasa’s decision to take back the spectrum is allowed to take effect.

Telkom has named eight respondents in the papers it filed this week:

  1. Icasa
  2. Chairperson of Icasa
  3. Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies
  4. Vodacom
  5. MTN
  6. Liquid Telecom
  7. South Africa Communications Forum
  8. Minister for Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs

Mahlangu explained that they approached the court in two stages.

Portrait of Siyabonga Mahlangu, Telkom Group Executive: Regulatory Affairs and Government Relations
Siyabonga Mahlangu, Telkom Group Executive: Regulatory Affairs and Government Relations

The first stage is to obtain an urgent interdict to block ICASA from taking back the emergency spectrum on 30 November.

Secondly, it has asked the court to review and set aside Icasa’s decision while the national state of disaster is ongoing.

Preliminarily, Telkom has argued that Icasa’s decision is: irrational, based on irrelevant considerations, unreasonable, procedurally unfair, and based on an error of fact.

“The anecdotal evidence used by Icasa is not reliable,” Mahlangu said.

“It should call for solid evidence. We can provide traffic volumes, and we already submit reports on all the deployments that we do.”

Mahlangu said that Icasa should have repeated what it did the last time it decided whether to extend the temporary licences another three months — it consulted with the industry, and they provided it with network statistics.

He warned that Icasa’s decision would be extremely harmful to matriculants and students busy preparing for the final exams. Some may even lose their broadband access entirely.

Mahlangu said that decommissioning their networks is not something that happens with the flick of a switch.

If they are to stop using the emergency spectrum by the deadline, they should have already started decommissioning.

“It takes time… Some customers would lose broadband access, including matrics and students, and those who have been forced to remote learning.”

Now read: South Africa’s networks may get stopgap spectrum

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Telkom sues Icasa to stop data “calamity” in South Africa