Spectrum allocation will come with social responsibilities and obligations to ensure citizens are connected.
This was revealed by communications and digital technologies minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni during yesterday’s State of the Nation Address debate at Cape Town City Hall.
Ntshavheni was remarking on the president’s pronouncement that the spectrum auction by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) will go ahead next month.
She stated the withdrawal of part A of the litigation by Telkom allows the auction to proceed, and further gives confidence that “parties can find each other outside of court on outstanding matters that are part of part B”.
Telkom has taken ICASA to court to challenge some aspects of the spectrum auction process.
Its application was in two segments – part A, which requested the court to urgently suspend the spectrum invitation to apply, while the court deliberates on part B of Telkom’s application, which focuses on the merits of its arguments against the licensing process.
However, Telkom later asked the courts to remove from the roll its urgent application (part A) to interdict ICASA from auctioning the spectrum.
“Progress did not happen by coincidence,” said Ntshavheni. “It is a result of continuous engagements to find common ground with all stakeholders.
“The licensing of the high-frequency spectrum will not only improve the ability of mobile communications operators to build robust telecommunications with better penetration and reach.
“Through ICASA, we have set social service obligations to connect, within 36 months of licensing of the spectrum, all outstanding public schools (18 520), public health facilities including clinics and hospitals (5 731) and offices of traditional leaders or traditional authorities (8 241).
“The extension of broadband connectivity to traditional authorities is part of government’s commitment to strengthen the role of traditional leaders as service delivery centres of government.”
She continued: “In the past, we have seen the telecommunications operators ignoring social obligations and opting to pay negligible penalties instead of connecting our people.
“This time around, ICASA will include the fulfilment of social service obligations as part of the licensing conditions without an option of a penalty but the spectrum licence itself.”
Long road ahead
South Africa’s allocation of spectrum has been up in the air for a number of years, with the last significant spectrum awarded 16 years ago. The last big set of spectrum issued was in the 2.1GHz band, which helped the operators in their 3G network deployment.
Unlike its African counterparts, SA is one of the few countries that have not allocated 4G/LTE spectrum on the continent. This has forced local operators to improvise, with spectrum re-farming and carrier aggregation.
Spectrum will help mobile operators provide faster and more widespread high-speed data services. On the consumer front, it would mean making affordable data available to firms and households.
For government, the allocation of spectrum by means of an auction is at the forefront of the economic reforms, as the state anticipates the national fiscus will benefit in excess of R8 billion from the proceeds of the auction, the minister stated.
Acknowledging the long journey, Ntshavheni said government looks forward to the positive benefits associated with release of spectrum, which include reduced costs of data and voice communications.
“This spectrum is expected to unlock economic transformation not only for the telecommunications sector but to service other industries such as mining, agriculture and manufacturing.
“We expect industry growth of between R4 billion and R6 billion in 2023. We are also working on a radio frequency spectrum policy for embedding 5G network and preparations for advances to sixth- and seventh-generation networks. This will allow us to prescribe minimum data to the home because data has become the new utility, like water and electricity, that our home needs.
“Every South African household – despite being rich or poor, employed or unemployed – will have access to 10 gigabytes per month.”
Ntshavheni told the joint sitting that part of the challenges bedevilling the auctioning of the high-demand spectrum has been the availability of sub-1GB spectrum that is to be released through the Broadcast Digital Migration (BDM) programme.
“The president, in his address, reported that this programme is firmly under way and on course to be completed by 31 March 2022.
“I am happy to report that we have concluded analogue switch-off in the five provinces as follows – Free State, Northern Cape, North West, Mpumalanga and Limpopo.”
The communications minister added that her department is on course to conclude the switch-off in the remaining four provinces during February and March.
“To date, the analogue switch-off (ASO) programme has supported 396 installer companies that have created 3 109 job opportunities to locals. These numbers of both companies participating and jobs created will double by the time when we conclude the digital migration. These companies form the basis from where we build digital technology businesses in our townships and rural areas.
“In addition, we have commenced the process of frequency re-stacking in provinces where we have concluded ASO. To date, we have concluded frequency restacking in Free State and Northern Cape, and will be concluding the North West during February, and we are to commence with frequency re-stacking in the provinces of Mpumalanga and Limpopo.”
After missing the International Telecommunication Union-mandated June 2015 migration deadline, the South African government is in a race to conclude the BDM process ahead of the long-awaited spectrum auction.