SA spectrum impasse could be settled by August
South Africa's spectrum stalemate could be settled by the end of August 2021, and a spectrum auction could be in motion by September, according to the country's telecoms regulator.
The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) said in an emailed statement to the media that ongoing settlement negotiations on spectrum litigation are "unfolding well and with a very encouraging outlook."
"All active litigants have since responded with their various positions on the matters, and there is an ongoing exchange of constructive engagements between the parties," ICASA said.
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 when SA's third-biggest network, Telkom, won a court interdict to stop the auction.
Telkom filed its court challenge back in December 2020 for a few reasons, including its belief that the auction structure will entrench the dominance of its rivals MTN and Vodacom, and that the process was fundamentally flawed because it included spectrum bands still being used by TV broadcasters.
MTN also went to the High Court in January, opposing the auction for different reasons. MTN's challenge is narrower and is concerned specifically with the way the regulator intends to license the 3.5GHz spectrum, which is key for 5G services.
For over a decade, operators have been forced to refarm their existing allocations of 2G and 3G spectrum in order to deploy 4G technology. 5G technology was launched in SA using temporary spectrum issued by ICASA last year to help operators meet the spike in broadband services demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The option and decision to enter into settlement negotiations has now proven to be effective as well as efficient, and afforded litigants the latitude to express themselves, thereby engaging thoroughly on the matters at hand," ICASA said.
Last week SA President Cyril Ramaphosa also encouraged the regulator and the litigants to try reach an out-of-court settlement through mediation.
"We note and welcome the comments made by the President of the Republic on the current spectrum legal deadlock over the past week. We are, however, confident that, based on the discussions and concessions brought about by the parties, we should be in a good position to yield an amicable settlement agreement by no later than end of August 2021," said ICASA chairperson Dr. Keabetswe Modimoeng.
He said that as soon as a settlement is reached, ICASA will only need a few more weeks to set the spectrum auction process in motion, and to communicate the new closing date for the Wireless Open Access Network (WOAN) applications.
"The Authority would like to finally advise that, even though its current preoccupation is to find a speedy resolution through the ongoing negotiations between litigants, the formalities in respect of the appeal process occasioned by the judgement of March 8, 2021, are still continuing in parallel as previously communicated. The outcome of the current settlement negotiations will, however, inform the future conduct of the appeal."
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*Top image is of ICASA Chairperson Dr. Keabetswe Modimoeng. (Source: ICASA).
— Paula Gilbert, Editor, Connecting Africa