South Africa’s legacy network fiasco

South Africa’s cabinet approved the publication of the country’s final Next Generation Radio Frequency Spectrum Policy in December 2023 — two months after the deadline set by minister Mondli Gungubele.

This is a crucial part of government’s plan to shut down the country’s 2G and 3G networks, assuming it meets its other deadlines.

However, it also missed its 31 December 2023 deadline for prohibiting new 2G connections or device activations.

The Department of Communications and Digital Technologies highlighted the fact that Gungubele intended to publish the policy, but this was delayed due to the 2023 World Radiocommunication Conference.

The Department of Communications and Digital Technologies highlighted several factors that resulted in delays in publishing the policy.

“It is crucial to indicate that the Minister has full intention to publish in the Gazette the Next Generation Spectrum Policy for Economic Development as approved by the Cabinet on 29 November 2023,” it told MyBroadband.

“The decision by Cabinet took place around the same time when the World Radiocommunication Conference 2023 (WRC-23) was in session to decide on a critical international treaty governing the use of spectrum and satellite orbit.”

“The WRC-23 concluded on 15 December 2023. The outcomes of this conference have a major impact on the Spectrum Policy and the regulatory framework of South Africa. The decision of Cabinet was affirmed by the outcomes of the WRC-23,” the department added.

Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, former Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies

South Africa’s Next Generation Radio Frequency Spectrum Policy is intended to support the spectrum allocation and licensing for fixed mobile, broadcasting, aeronautical and marine, research and development, community access, and other relevant industries.

It addresses gaps and limitations highlighted in the 2016 National Information and Communications Technology White Paper and supports the amendment of some sections of the Electronic Communications Act, including:

  • Unclear roles and responsibilities between the minister and the Independent Communication Authority of South Africa;
  • Gaps in the spectrum management regime; and,
  • Inefficiencies towards extending broadband access to rural, remote and underserved areas.

Former communications minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, in September 2022, published a draft of the policy that set out a rather ambitious timeline for shutting down the country’s legacy networks.

Ntshavheni’s first proposed deadlines were for the banning of licencing 2G and 3G devices by June 2023 and March 2024.

However, government was unable to meet the June 2023 deadline for banning 2G devices and shifted it to 31 December of the same year, which it also appears to have missed.

Mobile networks weigh in on shutdown plans

Outgoing MTN chief of sustainability and corporate affairs, Jacqui O’Sullivan, previously told MyBroadband that mobile networks were still engaging with government over the shutdown as of June 2023.

However, she added that while engagements were ongoing, the operator had no further communication from the department about the roadmap.

She said it was crucial that South African residents are migrated from 2G devices to newer technologies before the network is shut down.

“Shutting down a legacy technology requires pre-planning, and hence MTN is driving milestones to reduce demand for the legacy technologies,” said O’Sullivan.

“MTN, as part of its process, will engage with its customers to highlight the benefits of newer technologies.”

Jacqui O’Sullivan, chief sustainability and corporate affairs officer at MTN South Africa

MTN and Telkom disagree on which network should be switched off first. The former wants South Africa’s 3G networks to be shut down while leaving a layer of 2G connectivity active for a while.

It said 2G devices are still used for critical applications like banking and security, meaning the migration will take longer than migrating all 3G users to 4G.

However, Telkom believes the 2G network should be shut down first as most of its voice traffic is transmitted over its 3G network.

Shutting down 2G will have a minimal impact on Telkom, with less than 1% of its traffic being carried on the network.

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South Africa’s legacy network fiasco