Vodacom drops nuclear bomb in cellular cold war

Vodacom has set in motion a conflict that could escalate into an all-out legal war between network operators in South Africa.

It launched legal action against the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) over MTN spectrum pooling agreements the industry regulator quietly approved in 2022.

According to the court papers, Icasa allowed MTN to pool spectrum belonging to Cell C and Liquid Intelligent Technologies with its own.

Vodacom stated that Icasa granted the applications unlawfully, giving MTN a substantial and unfair advantage.

Radio frequency spectrum is the lifeblood of any wireless network carrier. It is the raw bandwidth they use to communicate between their towers and customer devices like smartphones.

According to Vodacom, MTN South Africa has been allowed to amass large contiguous blocks of bandwidth, which has allowed it to outperform every other operator on the continent.

“This was all done in secret, without any notice to Vodacom (or the public), and without any opportunity afforded to comment and make representations on whether this ought to be allowed,” it stated.

The company also argued that pooling spectrum like this amounts to notifiable mergers that should have involved the Competition Commission.

Vodacom has asked for an interdict against Icasa’s spectrum pooling approvals, and for the court to review and revoke them.

However, in attacking MTN’s spectrum pooling arrangements, Vodacom not only invited reprisal but may have given its rivals a stick to beat them with.

Nearly all of South Africa’s major network operators have some deals operating in regulatory grey areas.

Vodacom’s secret deal involving Cell C’s contract subscriber base is one such arrangement that could face increased scrutiny in response to its attack on Icasa and MTN.

Cell C shocked the market in January 2021 when it revealed that it was migrating its postpaid customers to Vodacom’s network.

This was because Cell C had previously said it would switch off its own network over several years and transition to using a “virtual radio access network” provided by MTN.

Cell C said it was futile to try and compete against Vodacom and MTN in infrastructure because South Africa’s cellular giants were each investing over R10 billion into their networks annually.

However, when the day came for Cell C’s network migration to begin, its first move was for its contract subscribers to roam on Vodacom.

After much confusion, Cell C explained that its prepaid subscriber will use MTN’s virtual RAN, while its contract customers will use Vodacom roaming.

Cell C contract subscribers soon reported that they no longer saw “Cell C” as the network their phones connected to — they saw Vodacom as their provider.

There was widespread speculation that Cell C sold its contract and broadband subscriber base to Vodacom in a secret deal with a subsidiary of its parent company, Blue Label Telecoms.

Cell C, Blue Label Telecom, and Vodacom vehemently denied that the contract base had been sold.

In addition to its deal with Cell C, Vodacom has agreements with Liquid and Rain involving their spectrum — albeit with no pooling arrangement. Curiously, this wasn’t mentioned in the court papers.

The Rain deal has been lucrative for the upstart cellular operator, and losing it could severely limit its ability to expand its network footprint.

Telkom, which has remained an outsider to all of this, previously cited these mysterious deals in a lawsuit it brought against Icasa to halt its March 2022 spectrum auction.

While the operator settled out of court to allow the auction results to stand, its grievances about Vodacom and MTN’s spectrum deals remain.

With Vodacom reopening the door on this issue, Telkom may be motivated to launch a legal volley of its own.

“Telkom has consistently asked Icasa to review all spectrum sharing and pooling deals, as these have the potential to skew competition,” a Telkom spokesperson said in response questions about Vodacom’s legal action.

MyBroadband also asked Cell C, Liquid, MTN, and Rain for comment.

Liquid and MTN confirmed they had received the court papers and were reviewing them.

Rain declined to comment.

Cell C has yet to provide feedback.

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Vodacom drops nuclear bomb in cellular cold war