Communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams has dashed hopes for the urgent licensing of new broadband spectrum to mobile operators, missing a self-imposed deadline to publish a policy direction to communications regulator Icasa and kicking the can further down the road.
Ndabeni-Abrahams, speaking through her spokeswoman, Nthabeleng Mokitimi-Dlamini, told TechCentral on Wednesday that “following extensive consultations in this regard, the minister deems it necessary to hold the policy direction on unassigned high-demand spectrum in abeyance for consideration in the sixth administration”.
The news will come as a blow to the country’s mobile operators, which are desperate for access to new spectrum to continue rolling out their 4G/LTE networks (built using their 2G and 3G spectrum assignments) and to begin deployment of next-generation 5G technology.
Last month, the minister had promised the policy direction would be released by no later than 30 April 2019.
South Africa’s operators have not received any new spectrum in the past 14 years, crimping their ability to roll out mobile broadband infrastructure and driving up their costs as they are forced to “densify” their networks in urban areas to cope with demand. MTN and Vodacom have said they will be able to cut mobile data prices meaningfully only after they get access to additional spectrum resources.
Ndabeni-Abrahams’ decision to postpone the publication of the policy direction is problematic, particularly if she doesn’t retain the communications portfolio after the election — a new minister is likely to take months to get up to speed on the complex issues.
The minister met with industry role players at the beginning of April and promised the policy direction, which will allow Icasa to go ahead with the licensing process, would be issued by 30 April.
Licensing of high-demand spectrum is deemed necessary to lessen resource constraints experienced by incumbent mobile operators, enable transformation of a historically vertically integrated market, level the playing field and enable new entrants into the market, government said last month. It will contribute to reducing the cost to communicate and drive universal services and access.
Addressing last month’s meeting with the sector, Ndabeni-Abrahams said that although stakeholders might not agree on all aspects of the final policy direction, they must strive to find consensus that ensures that high-demand spectrum is eventually licensed.
“Since the advent of mobile broadband, spectrum has turned out to be both a competitive and an anticompetitive tool for incumbent network operators and a barrier to entry for new entrants,” she said.
“Some spectrum lies unutilised or underutilised … and we would like to change that by making sure that spectrum is effectively and efficiently licensed in order to address not only revenue generation, but to also ensure inclusive participation.”
However, even if there is swift action after the election to license additional spectrum to operators, government’s bungling of the digital television migration project — which again appears to have stalled — is a significant problem for the sector as TV broadcasters continue to use the “digital dividend” bands at 700MHz and 800MHz for analogue services.
These bands are ideally suited for rolling out mobile broadband networks in rural areas at lower cost and improving in-building coverage in the cities. South Africa was originally meant to complete the migration project eight years ago, a deadline set by former communications minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri. — (c) 2019 NewsCentral Media