Mobile data prices – Here is what’s preventing price drops

The easiest way to reduce data prices in South Africa is to give more spectrum to mobile operators – but incompetence, mismanagement, and instability at the Department of Communications has stopped this from happening.

In its recent Data Services Market Inquiry, the Competition Commission said a lack of spectrum played a role in high data prices.

Vodacom CEO Shameel Joosub said the most significant obstacle to reducing input costs and, by extension, data prices is the fact that no new spectrum has been allocated in South Africa in the last 14 years.

“Lengthy delays in completing the digital migration and allocating 4G spectrum has curbed the pace at which data prices could have fallen,” Joosub said.

He added that the release of high-demand spectrum will help to restore investor confidence in South Africa and the growth of the economy.

MTN SA CEO Godfrey Motsa said the spectrum crunch that has beset South Africa for a decade has undoubtedly hindered the health and growth of the industry.

Digital dividend spectrum

Digital dividend spectrum – the 700-800MHz band that can only be allocated once the digital migration in South Africa is completed – can play a key role to reduce data prices.

By moving to a digital system and switching off the analogue one, large chunks of spectrum, called the digital dividend, will become available.

Because of its lower frequency (in comparison with 2,100MHz, for example) it is excellent to provide rural and indoor LTE coverage.

In the absence of digital dividend spectrum operators have had to re-farm spectrum and build significantly more towers at great expense to provide LTE services.

This higher network cost is passed on to consumers in the form of more expensive data products.

What is stopping the process

It is clear that releasing spectrum will help operators to roll out networks, launch new technologies like LTE-A and 5G, and reduce data prices.

This raises the question as to why this has not happened.

The answer is simple: ANC government incompetence.

Over the last 11 years South Africa has had 11 communications ministers, many of whom have no knowledge of the industry.

This, coupled with incompetence and mismanagement, has crushed the digital migration and spectrum allocation processes.

Missed deadlines

The Department of Communications started its digital migration process over a decade ago and set a deadline of November 2011 for the process to be completed.

The November 2011 deadline passed without any real progress, and so did the international digital migration deadline of 17 June 2015.

In 2015, South Africa became part of a small list of countries that failed to even get out of the starting blocks towards digital migration.

Since then it has been one missed deadline after another, while the telecoms industry is begging for additional spectrum to serve the growing demand for mobile data.

Every new minister promised action, but just like their predecessors, the job has not been completed.

An overview of what has happened

The list below provides an overview of what has happened during the past 18 years in South Africa.


Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri

Date: 2001

Minister: Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri

What they said: The Minister appoints the Digital Broadcasting Advisory Board (DBAB). Among other things, the DBAB investigates the various digital terrestrial television standards.

Result: In 2002 The DBAB produces a report recommending that South Africa should adopt the terrestrial version of the Digital Video Broadcasting standard, or DVB-T, which was developed in Europe.


Date: 2004

Minister: Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri

What they said: By the end of this year (2004) a complete strategy for migration will be announced.

Result: Missed deadline


Date: 2005

Minister: Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri

What they said: “I hereby announce my intention to establish a Digital Broadcasting Migration Working Group comprised of representatives from the industry, the regulator, consumers, business and government.”

Result: In 2006 the Digital Migration Working Group was formed.


Date: 2007

Minister: Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri

What they said: “The Cabinet has approved that the digital signal be switched on 1 November 2008.”


Date: 2007

Minister: Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri

What they said: “The analogue signal should be switched off in November 2011.”

Result: Deadline missed.


Date: 2007

Minister: Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri

What they said: “The Broadcasting Digital Migration Policy will be gazetted on the 1st of June 2007.”

Result: Deadline missed – The final policy was Gazetted on 8 September 2008.


Date: 2007

Minister: Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri

What they said: Regarding the Digital Migration process, I am happy to say that the Cabinet has approved that the digital signal be switched on 1 November 2008.

Result: Digital TV switched on in October 2008


Date: 2007

Minister: Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri

What they said: Sentech is on schedule to meet government’s commitment by providing about 80% Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) coverage by 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup.

Result: Deadline missed.


Date: 2007

Minister: Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri

What they said: “Sentech intends to launch at least one high definition television (HDTV) satellite channel, in time for the 2010 Soccer World Cup.”

Result: Never happened.


Date: 2007

Minister: Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri

What they said: “We have established a body to oversee the rollout of digital migration in South Africa and we have called it the Digital Dzonga.”

Result: Minister Siphiwe Nyanda dissolved the Digital Dzonga in April 2010 on the grounds of conflict of interest of some of the members of the then Advisory Council.


Date: 2008

Minister: Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri

What they said: The Broadcasting Digital Migration (BDM) process is on track.

Result: It was proved to be completely false.


Date: 2008

Minister: Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri

What they said: The dates for the switch on of the digital signal and switch off of the analogue signal have been decided and announced as November 2008 and November 2011 respectively.

Result: The November 2011 deadline was missed, and switch-off was not achieved.


Siphiwe Nyanda

Date: 2009

Minister: Siphiwe Nyanda

What they said: “Significant progress has been made to meet [the] 1 November 2011 analogue switch off date.”

Result: It was proved to be completely false.


Date: 2010

Minister: Siphiwe Nyanda

What they said: “Sentech will continue with the rollout of the DTT infrastructure. Sentech is critical in the provision of digital terrestrial television. Its target is to reach 60% population coverage by the end of the financial year 2010/11.”

Result: Deadline missed.


Roy Padayachie

Date: 2011

Minister: Roy Padayachie

What they said: December 2013 is the new analogue switch-off date, with a view to allow the period between 2013 and 2015 to address any challenge that may arise towards the ITU deadline of 2015.

Result: Deadline missed. In fact, it has still not happened.


Dina Pule

Date: 2012

Minister: Dina Pule

What they said: ICASA has commenced with the process to finalise the Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) regulations. It is envisaged that the final gazette will be published in June 2012.

Result: Deadline missed.


Date: 2012

Minister: Dina Pule

What they said: I want to affirm to this House that we are on course on the DTT process

Result: No, they were not on course.


Siyabonga Cwele

Date: July 2014

Minister: Siyabonga Cwele

What they said: “The June 2015 deadline [which South Africa agreed upon with the ITU] looms before us and we dare not let our people down”

Result: Deadline missed.


Faith Muthambi

Date: August 2016

Minister: Faith Muthambi

What they said: Communications Minister Faith Muthambi is hoping that South Africa’s plan to switch to digital television broadcasts will be at an advanced stage by the end of 2018.

Result: Deadline missed.


Date: November 2016

Minister: Faith Muthambi

What they said: “We are now eyeing to complete the digital migration project in the country by the end of December 2018”

Result: Deadline missed.


Ayanda Dlodlo

Date: May 2017

Minister: Ayanda Dlodlo

What they said: Minister of Communications Ayanda Dlodlo announced on Friday that her department will speed up South Africa’s digital migration process so that it can take place sooner than December 2018.

Result: Deadline missed.


Date: August 2017

Minister: Ayanda Dlodlo

What they said: Communications Minister Ayanda Dlodlo has reiterated her commitment to see all South Africans migrating from analogue to digital television by December 2018.

Result: Deadline missed.


Mmamoloko Kubayi

Date: January 2018

Minister: Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane

What they said: Communications minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane says it will cost the government R6.6 billion to ensure South Africa makes the International Telecommunication Union’s June 2019 deadline to implement digital migration policy.

Result: Deadline will be missed.


Nomvula Mokonyane

Date: October 2018

Minister: Nomvula Mokonyane

What they said: “Based on the activities plan and the resources we have, analogue switch-off will occur in SA in July 2020. However, we will work harder to do it earlier if it’s possible.”

Result: To be seen.


Date: 3 April 2019

Minister: Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams

What they said: The final policy directive on spectrum allocation will be issued by end of April 2019.

Result: Postponed


This is an opinion piece.

Now read: South Africa’s networks are ready and waiting for 5G spectrum 

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Mobile data prices – Here is what’s preventing price drops