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Ramaphosa promises SA spectrum auction will go ahead in March

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South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa has reiterated the need for high-frequency communications spectrum to be allocated to local operators, saying the regulator will commence with its planned auction "in about three weeks from now."

Ramaphosa made the comment during the president's annual State of the Nation Address (SONA) for 2022, delivered in Cape Town on Thursday evening.

The president made no mention of ongoing litigation between the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) and local operator Telkom SA and seemed set that the auction will go ahead as planned.

"This will unlock new spectrum for mobile telecommunications for the first time in over a decade. In addition, we will facilitate the rapid deployment of broadband infrastructure across all municipalities by establishing a standard model for the granting of municipal permissions," he said.

"These reforms will revolutionize the country's technological development, making faster broadband accessible to more people and reducing the costs of digital communications."

ICASA had intended to auction spectrum in the 700MHz, 800MHz, 2.6GHz and 3.5GHz bands in March 2022, after years of delays.

Digital divide

"One of the greatest constraints on the technological development of our economy has been the unacceptable delay in the migration of broadcasting from analogue to digital," Ramaphosa said in his SONA speech.

In 2006, South Africa committed to the International Telecommunication Union's June 2015 deadline for all countries to switch from analogue to digital terrestrial TV. However, SA missed the deadline and has still only partially migrated to digital TV.

The digital migration is critical for the country as it will free up high-demand spectrum that can be used for mobile broadband services.

In November 2021, SA's Communications and Digital Technologies Minister, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, committed to completing the migration by the end of March 2022, saying her department is firmly on the path to meet the deadline.

Ramaphosa said the switch-off of analogue transmission has been completed in a number of provinces and the remaining provinces "will move to digital signal by the end of March 2022".

"As part of this process, government will continue to subsidize low-income households so that they can access a set-top box and make the switch to digital TV," he added.

Legal limbo

The ICASA spectrum auction is, however, not without its challenges. The regulator is still facing a court case from Telkom which will be heard in early April.

On January 5, 2022, Telkom filed an urgent interdict asking the Gauteng High Court to review and set aside ICASA's spectrum "Invitations To Apply (ITA)," published in December 2021.

The court case had two parts. On January 21, 2022, Telkom decided to remove Part A of the application, which was asking for urgent court action to suspend the ITA. It said it would continue with Part B, which focuses on the reasons that Telkom is unhappy with ICASA's process and the ITA document.

Despite Telkom's request that the courts hear the case in early March – before the ICASA auction kicks off – the hearing has been set for the week of April 11-14, 2022.

This week, Telkom warned ICASA that it "would now be expected to carefully consider the prudence of proceeding with the auction" and said it reserved its right to reinstate Part A and ask for an urgent interdict to stop the auction.

ICASA is also still facing a court challenge from broadcaster e-tv which will be heard by the high court next month.

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*Top image is of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Source: GovernmentZA GCIS via Flickr)

Paula Gilbert, Editor, Connecting Africa

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