South Africa’s cellular networks must reapply for temporary spectrum

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) announced on Wednesday that it would reassign temporary radio frequency spectrum given to cellular network operators at the start of South Africa’s Covid-19 epidemic.

“Icasa has decided to make available the following International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) bands available for provisional assignment effective from 1 December 2021, i.e. 700MHz, 800MHz, 2300MHz, 2600MHz and 3500MHz bands,” the regulator stated.

“All qualifying licensees will have five working days to submit their applications to the Authority, i.e. applications must be submitted by no later than 16h00 on Wednesday, 17 November 2021.”

This temporary spectrum assignment will be valid for seven months, expiring on 30 June 2022 or three months after the end of South Africa’s national state of disaster, whichever comes first.

“The bands shall be assigned in accordance with the criteria and conditions stipulated by the Authority in the ICT Covid-19 National State of Disaster Regulations,” Icasa stated.

Icasa promised to consider the applications and make a final decision by no later than 26 November 2021.

The regulator said it believes it is in the public’s best interest to have a provisional spectrum licensing arrangement in place over the next seven months.

This will enable all other inherent licensing processes to conclude while mitigating any possible service disruptions.

“Icasa is not a spectrum-hoarding regulator. All we want is ultimately a competitive, transparent, and all-inclusive spectrum licensing regime, and plans are afoot in that regard,” said Icasa chairperson Keabetswe Modimoeng.

“The provisional spectrum licensing arrangement is an improved pro-competitive interim measure but is not a permanent process considering its limited participatory scope. This provisional arrangement is tailored to deal with any network issues which may affect the provision of services to consumers in the intervening period.”

Operators who wish to participate in this process will, amongst others, pay an application fee, an acquisition fee, as well as the spectrum licence (utilisation) fee in line with the spectrum applied for, Icasa said.

Icasa said it remains committed to permanently licence the high demand spectrum per its truncated timetable published on 1 October 2021.

Under this timetable, Icasa said it aims to begin the spectrum auction by March 2022.

Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng, ICASA Executive Chair
Keabetswe Modimoeng, ICASA Executive Chair

Icasa’s proposal is in-line with communications minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni’s comments in October that government was considering “interim” spectrum assignments to bridge the gap between the end of November and March next year.

Ntshavheni explained at the time that many legal complexities need to be navigated for such an interim spectrum proposal, and that Icasa would have to agree to it.

The temporary spectrum was assigned in April 2020 to help mobile networks cope with the anticipated influx of data traffic on their networks as people were told to isolate themselves at home.

Icasa’s announcement of the reassignment process comes after CEO Willington Ngwepe invited Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, Cell C, Liquid Intelligent Technologies, and Rain to an online meeting on Monday at 14:00.

Telkom and MTN had filed papers in the Pretoria High Court to block Icasa from taking back the temporary spectrum at the end of November.

Icasa called the meeting on Monday to settle the dispute out of court.

Rain CEO Brandon Leigh declined to comment about what was discussed at the meeting, but said they are supportive of Icasa proposing an out of court remedy,” said Rain CEO Brandon Leigh.

Liquid said the meeting was held in a collegial atmosphere with a focus on finding solutions.

It also declined to comment on details, saying the meeting was held on a confidential basis.

Now read: Michael Jordaan answers tough questions about Rain’s spectrum fight

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South Africa’s cellular networks must reapply for temporary spectrum