Business Leadership South Africa (BLSA) has torn strips off communications regulator Icasa over its intention to withdraw temporary spectrum from operators at the end of November.
Speaking to television news channel Newzoom Afrika on Tuesday, BLSA CEO Busi Mavuso said that if Icasa proceeds with its plan to take back the spectrum, it will be tantamount to creating “digital load shedding”.
“We are saying as business that the timing makes no sense,” Mavuso said. “The pandemic is still with us, and we remain in a state of disaster…”
Taking back the temporary spectrum, she said, would force employees back to offices, exposing them to Covid-19 infection, and cut off the vulnerable from access to zero-rated services, including Covid-19-related resources (a condition of the licensing of the spectrum).
On 30 August, Icasa once again extended the allocation of emergency temporary spectrum but warned the latest three-month extension would be the last.
Describing the latest extension as a “grace period”, Icasa said it would allow licensees to “wind down their use of temporary radio frequency spectrum”. Some operators have used the spectrum to launch 5G networks of limited scope, while most have deployed it to provide additional capacity in areas where demand has increased, with more people working from home.
“Icasa has resolved that the temporary radio frequency spectrum assigned to licensees will now have to be returned to the authority by no later 30 November,” the regulator said in a statement.
But taking back the spectrum now could prove highly problematic given a planned spectrum auction is now off the table until at least 2022.
Icasa “cannot allow the temporary spectrum assignment to assume a state of permanence”, said chairman Keabetswe Modimoeng in the 30 August statement. “Having allowed operators to use the temporarily assigned spectrum for 17 months, it is reasonable that they be allowed a further three months, until 30 November 2021, as a sufficient winding-down period.”
Let’s agree that we could be facing the fourth wave shortly after November. This will be an own goal … by Icasa
But BLSA is enraged by Icasa’s decision, with Mavuso saying that even under the current adjusted level-2 Covid restrictions, government has encouraged people to work and study from home. “That won’t be possible if Icasa withdraws the temporary spectrum. That means all of us will be forced to go back to the office,” she said.
“Let’s agree that we could be facing the fourth wave shortly after November. This will be an own goal … by Icasa. This must get the president’s attention – it doesn’t make sense. We keep on talking about how we need to position this country as an investment destination, but this undermines our economic recovery agenda.”
She said Icasa’s decision sends completely the wrong message to investors. “South Africa is not open for business when Icasa makes a decision like this… Have we really thought about the unintended consequences of this decision?”
In a statement posted on BLSA’s website, Mavuso said the temporary spectrum allocation has been “absolutely critical to minimising the impact of lockdowns and the pandemic. Tens of thousands of school learners and tertiary students were able to continue their education; clinics and other healthcare sites could remain connected; and a great many people have been able to book vaccines through the health department’s portal.
“The spectrum has also been very important for the economy – it has enabled a great many people to continue working from home. It would have been impossible for people to remain connected without it and many more jobs would have been lost. Instead, the call centre industry, one of the real success stories of our country over the last year and half, was able to create jobs during the pandemic.”
She said Icasa’s decision to withdraw the temporary spectrum came as “a shock” to her and the business community. “The original regulations noted that the spectrum would be made available until three months following the end of the state of disaster, or at end-November 2020. That second date has been rolled back since then, and everyone had assumed it would continue to be until such time as the state of disaster has terminated. That Icasa would suddenly withdraw this access at this point of the pandemic makes no sense.”