Icasa will fight Telkom

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) has vowed to fight the court case that Telkom filed to block the regulator from taking back emergency radio frequency spectrum.

Telkom approached the North Gauteng High Court last week to file papers to interdict Icasa from taking back the temporary spectrum it 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.

“Icasa believes that the circumstances and considerations that informed the issuing of the radio frequency spectrum at the onset of the pandemic never contemplated that the spectrum would be licensed on a long-term or semi-permanent basis,” the regulator stated.

“The Authority will therefore be derelict in its duty if it were, by default, to perpetuate what is now becoming an anti-competitive, unfair, and unjust spectrum licensing regime, under the guise of pandemic relief.”

Icasa argued that public interest dictates that high-demand spectrum be licensed without delay through an open, competitive, and permanent assignment process.

“It is for this reason that the Authority has set out an expedited timetable for the permanent licensing of this spectrum through an open, market-based approach by no later than the end of March 2022,” Icasa stated.

“In Icasa’s view, it would be unfortunate if the Authority’s efforts to license this spectrum were continually to be frustrated by recourse to the courts to allow the temporary, ad hoc COVID-19 spectrum arrangements to remain in place in perpetuity.”

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

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 argues that the circumstances that justified the release of the emergency spectrum has changed, while feedback from South Africa’s mobile network providers paints 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.

Now read: Good news for digital TV in South Africa

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Icasa will fight Telkom