The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) has rubbished claims from MTN that there will be “digital load-shedding” when the regulator takes back temporary radio frequency spectrum on 30 November.
“This concept of a ‘digital load-shedding’ is unsubstantiated,” Icasa chair Keabetswe Modimoeng said during a recent interview with Newzroom Afrika.
“I’m actually battling to comprehend what informs that concept when no one is intending to take away spectrum that has already been permanently assigned to operators.”
Icasa temporarily assigned spectrum at the start of South Africa’s national state of disaster to help network operators cope with the surge in demand for data during the Covid–19 lockdown.
It surprised the telecommunications industry last month when Icasa announced plans to take back the spectrum at the end of November.
While the spectrum assignments were always temporary, the industry was confounded that Icasa would take it back when experts forecast that South Africa would experience a fourth wave of Covid–19 from the start of December.
In the wake of Icasa’s announcement, MTN warned that South Africa faces a form of “digital load-shedding” if the regulator were to go through with its plans.
MTN said that demand for bandwidth on its network remains high, even though South Africa is at a lower level of lockdown.
Modimoeng was unconvinced by this argument, telling Newzroom Afrika that the regulator sees traffic on the roads increasing as people return to work and school.
“Traffic is piling up on the roads… it illustrates an economy that is gradually going back to normal, so we cannot have a hard-lockdown relief measure [perpetuated],” said Modimoeng.
He said that Icasa believes mobile networks will continue operating on their existing permanent spectrum assignments.
“We are not where we were in March or even in June of last year,” Modimoeng stated.
However, feedback from South Africa’s mobile network operators paints a very different picture.
MTN told MyBroadband that over the last 18-months, data consumption on its network has more than doubled in volume.
The operator said that data volumes jumped during the initial Alert Level 5 lockdown restrictions, especially in the day, compared to pre-lockdown trends.
Even as lockdown restrictions eased, the growth in traffic on its network continued to increase, MTN said.
“This is fuelled by not just the growth in the number of smartphones in the market, but also by the growth in fixed wireless access (home) consumption,” MTN executive for corporate affairs Jacqui O’Sullivan said.
O’Sullivan said that the challenge for mobile operators is catering for the busy-hour demands in the network.
“MTN has witnessed growth in data demand from not just in the day but also in the evenings,” she said.
“This is being driven by growth in traffic for web, social media applications — including video and messaging — and video streaming traffic.”
Cell C said it had seen data traffic peak since January 2021 — the highest it has experienced since August 2020.
“We experienced high traffic volumes at the start of the hard lockdown in March 2020, which continued into the festive season,” said Cell C chief technology officer Schalk Visser.
Visser noted that consumption during the festive season was lower than during the hard lockdown.
“Voice demand was higher during the early part of December 2020 compared to the previous year,” he said.
“Overall network traffic has increased since July 2021 due to our Home Connecta Flexi product and other sales initiatives,” said Visser.
Telkom told MyBroadband that its mobile network data traffic jumped from almost 72 petabytes (1.024 million gigabytes) in March 2020 to more than 87PB in April 2020.
“This set a new growth baseline in the network, with four months in 2021 exceeding 85PB by August 2021,” said Telkom.
“On average, the monthly data traffic on Telkom Mobile’s network has grown approximately 70% year-on-year compared with pre-Covid–19 levels.”
Vodacom said that voice and data traffic on its mobile network remains significantly higher than 18 months ago.
“There was a sharp increase in data traffic during last year’s level 5 hard lockdown, necessitating a significant reconfiguration of and substantial investment into our network to keep more customers connected at home for longer,” Vodacom said.
Vodacom said that data and voice usage remains elevated, indicating that a sizeable proportion of its customers are still working from home.
“Usage behaviour patterns are ever-changing and remain unpredictable as a result of the National State of Disaster,” stated Vodacom.
“Interestingly, voice traffic spiked around each of the changes in lockdown levels.”