South Africa’s analogue TV switch-off — Vodacom, MTN, Rain weigh in

Sentech has officially switched off all terrestrial analogue television transmissions above 694MHz, and Vodacom, MTN, and Rain are ready to take advantage of the newly-freed spectrum.

MyBroadband asked South Africa’s major mobile network operators — Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, and Rain — if they could access the radio frequency spectrum they won at auction and what they have planned. Cell C did not bid on any spectrum in these bands.

Rain said its spectrum had been made available.

“We do have access to the spectrum, and we have started the rollout of our 700MHz layer,” it said.

Jacqui O’Sullivan, Corporate Affairs Chief at MTN, said the operator would first activate the spectrum in underserved regions of South Africa.

“We have been conservative on activation of spectrum to ensure we don’t interfere with existing broadcast systems in this band,” said O’Sullivan.

“We note the migration of broadcasters post 31 July 2023, which will enable MTN to activate this spectrum, with the immediate focus to activate the spectrum in underserved areas first in order to meet the 92% population coverage obligation.”

However, she specified that MTN had already started deploying infrastructure to enable the 800MHz spectrum it acquired through the spectrum auction in 2022.

MTN chief of corporate affairs Jacqui O’Sullivan

Vodacom spokesperson Byron Kennedy told MyBroadband that it is encouraged by attempts by broadcasters to accelerate their migration out of the IMT700 and IMT800 spectrum bands.

However, Vodacom is unsure about whether the bands have been completely cleared.

“While we have noted recent reductions in interference on the IMT700 spectrum band, we are working closely with Icasa [Independent Communications Authority of South Africa — the industry regulator] to validate the extent to which the band has been cleared,” said Kennedy.

“Given the large areas that are affected, we anticipate that it will take the teams a few weeks to conclude their analysis. In the meantime, Vodacom will continue with its planned network rollout in areas that are interference-free.”

He added that Vodacom customers should notice an improvement in LTE coverage areas where the operator has activated the IMT700 spectrum over the coming months.

Communications Minister Mondli Gungubele and deputy minister Philly Mapulane carried out the ceremonial flicking of the switch at Sentech’s Stellenbosch transmitter on Monday, 31 July 2023.

The move signalled the first stage of South Africa’s final migration from analogue to digital terrestrial TV, albeit 13 years behind schedule.

The migration is set to free the radio frequency spectrum that mobile network operators can leverage to improve the capacity and coverage of their 4G and 5G networks. This is known as the digital dividend.

Mondli Gungubele, South Africa’s Minister of Communications, at the ceremonial switch-off of Sentech’s Stellenbosch transmitter.

In March 2022, Icasa concluded its auction for a large portion of the spectrum that would be made available through the migration.

Six operators — Cell C, Liquid Intelligent Technologies, MTN, Rain Networks, Telkom, and Vodacom — made bids for the spectrum, together bidding just under R14.5 billion.

However, as part of a compromise between network operators and Icasa, they didn’t have to pay until they could use the frequencies.

Telkom bid R1.5 billion for 20MHz of bandwidth in the 800MHz frequency band. MTN also bought 20MHz in the band, and 20MHz went unsold during the auction.

Rain bid over a billion rand for 20MHz bandwidth in 700MHz and 10MHz in the much higher-frequency 2600MHz band. Vodacom bought the remaining 20MHz made available in the 700MHz band.

Icasa plans to hold another auction for high-demand spectrum in early 2024.

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South Africa’s analogue TV switch-off — Vodacom, MTN, Rain weigh in