The council of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) has resolved that the temporary radio frequency spectrum assigned to licensees will have to be returned to the authority by no later than 30 November.
In a statement, the telecoms regulator says the temporary radio frequency spectrum was first assigned by means of an expedited invitation to apply during April 2020 on the initial declaration of the National State of Disaster, occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic.
After the release of the temporary spectrum, mobile operators used it to launch 5G networks in SA’s cities.
The mobile operators have long been waiting for ICASA to auction spectrum. ICASA was set to auction the long-awaited high-demand spectrum by 31 March 2021.
However, it was dealt a blow when MTN, Telkom and Etv took the regulator to court, challenging some aspects of the auction process.
Last month, the regulator said the ongoing settlement negotiations on spectrum litigation are unfolding well and with a very encouraging outlook.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has called for mediation in the legal impasse that has held back the country’s spectrum auction process.
South Africa’s allocation of high-demand spectrum has been up in the air for a number of years, with the last significant spectrum awarded 16 years ago.
It is expected that the freed-up spectrum will reduce the cost of data and increase access to the internet. Additionally, for government, a spectrum auction means a boost to the fiscus.
The authority says it has since twice extended the duration of the temporary radio frequency spectrum assignment, the last expiry date being 31 August 2021.
The authority has taken account of the current environment in relation to the number of infections, the gradual reopening of the economy and the steady progress in the vaccination programme.
More importantly, says ICASA, the authority is mindful of the need to focus its efforts on the permanent licensing of spectrum.
However, it is important that the industry be allowed adequate time to plan and adjust their operations, it notes.
According to ICASA chairperson Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng: “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 South Africans were, and continue to be, able to communicate during these unprecedented times.
“However, the authority cannot allow the temporary spectrum assignment to assume a state of permanence.”
Modimoeng further says having allowed operators to use the temporarily assigned spectrum for a period of 17 months, it is reasonable that they be allowed a further three months until 30 November as a sufficient winding down period.
In order to allow the licensees to wind down their operations on the temporary spectrum, and to notify consumers about the impact thereof (if any) on their service offerings, the authority says it has resolved to amend the COVID-19 National Disaster Regulations to provide for continued use of the temporary radio frequency spectrum licences for the period ending 30 November.