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4G/5G

SA operators to 'wind down' temporary spectrum usage

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South Africa's telecoms operators have been told to wind down their use of temporary radio frequency spectrum and given a three-month grace period to do so.

That's the latest update from SA regulator – the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) – which says temporary spectrum will have to be returned by no later November 30, 2021.

The temporary spectrum allocations go back to April 2020 when ICASA released the free spectrum in five different bands, for the duration of South Africa's national state of disaster as a way to help operators meet the spike in broadband services demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Originally the end date was November 2020 but this was extended and operators had to start paying for the use of the spectrum at the end of last year. Since then, ICASA extended the deadline again to August 31, 2021, and now to November.

ICASA said in a statement that it has taken account of the current environment in terms of the number of COVID-19 infections, the gradual reopening of the economy and the steady progress in the vaccination program.

"The Authority's interventions with regards to the release of the temporary radio frequency spectrum have indeed contributed immensely to the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and to ensuring that South Africans were, and continue to be, able to communicate during these unprecedented times," said ICASA chairperson Dr. Keabetswe Modimoeng.

"However, the Authority cannot allow the temporary spectrum assignment to assume a state of permanence," he added.

No permanent solution

Permanent spectrum for 4G and 5G remains an issue for South Africa's telcos. For over a decade, operators have also been forced to refarm their existing allocations of 2G and 3G spectrum in order to deploy 4G technology.

After years of delays, ICASA had planned to auction lots of spectrum in the 700MHz, 800MHz, 2.6GHz and 3.5GHz bands by no later than the end of March 2021. However, the whole process had to be halted by a number of court challenges.

Back in June, ICASA said that settlement negotiations on the spectrum litigation were unfolding well and the issue could be settled by the end of August, but obviously that didn't happen.


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The regulator said it was "mindful of the need to focus its efforts on the permanent licensing of spectrum" but also realized it's important that "the industry be allowed adequate time to plan and adjust their operations."

Modimoeng said operators have already been given the temporarily spectrum for 17 months, and "it is reasonable that they be allowed a further three months" to wind down their operations on the temporary spectrum, and to notify consumers about any possible impact.

One major impact will be on 5G users because operators like Vodacom and MTN have launched 5G services using the temporary spectrum and have no permanent spectrum in the 5G bands at the moment to use from December onwards.

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*Top image is of ICASA Chairperson Dr. Keabetswe Modimoeng. (Source: ICASA)

— Paula Gilbert, Editor, Connecting Africa

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