Icasa gears up to release more spectrum for South Africa’s mobile networks

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) has published an information memorandum regarding licensing additional radio frequency spectrum for mobile networks.

Icasa said it intends to release several lots of low-frequency and mid-band spectrum and has invited interested stakeholders to give their views.

After years of delays and in the face of ongoing litigation by partially state-owned operator Telkom, Icasa auctioned off a trove of spectrum in March 2022.

The auction raised almost R14.5 billion for National Treasury, with Vodacom and MTN bidding over R5 billion each.

Icasa licensed 326MHz of spectrum, 210MHz of which went to South Africa’s two biggest operators, more than doubling their spectrum holdings.

Telkom also acquired some lower-frequency spectrum that it had been lacking. It continues to hold more spectrum than Vodacom or MTN.

When the dust settled, South Africa’s three major mobile network players — Vodacom, MTN, and Telkom — were on a more even footing spectrum-wise.

Pre-auction IMT spectrum holdings
South African mobile operator IMT spectrum holdings following Icasa auction in March 2022

One lot of spectrum remained unsold — 20MHz in the lower frequency 800MHz band.

Telkom contends that it remains at a disadvantage to Vodacom and MTN over its relative lack of lower-frequency spectrum.

Following the auction, Vodacom and MTN both have around 42MHz of capacity in frequency bands below 900MHz, while Telkom has 20MHz.

Frequency bands below a gigahertz (also called sub–1GHz) are attractive because they can create larger coverage areas per tower and offer greater indoor penetration than higher frequencies.

However, there is much less capacity available in lower frequency bands.

As part of its settlement with Telkom to drop its legal challenge against the spectrum auction, Icasa agreed it would start licensing frequencies that remained unassigned by 30 June 2022.

Icasa committed to concluding this licensing process within its current financial year, which ends on 31 March 2023.

In its information memorandum published on 17 August, Icasa said it is now embarking on the second phase of the licensing process that began with the spectrum auction in March.

It intends to licence the unsold band from the auction and several additional frequency bands.

Interested stakeholders have until 16h00 on 19 September 2022 to give their views.

The table below summarises the spectrum Icasa is considering licensing.

Band Frequencies (MHz) Bandwith Status
IMT800 791-801 // 832-842 2x10MHz FDD In use: analogue TV
IMT2100 2010-2025 15MHz TDD Unoccupied
IMT450 450-455
2x5MHz FDD In use: Government entities
IMT750 733-758 25MHz In use: analogue TV
IMT1500 1452-1492 40MHz TDD Unoccupied
IMT2300 ~2300-2400 40MHz TDD Fixed services outside broadcast links
IMT3300 3300-3400 100MHz TDD Unoccupied
Earmarked: 5G 4800-4990 190MHz In use: Government services

Now read: Telkom’s fight against Vodacom and MTN

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Icasa gears up to release more spectrum for South Africa’s mobile networks