/ 23 April 2020

Faster, cheaper data is here – but not for long

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Vodacom last week committed R500-million to accelerate network infrastructure spend over the next two months. (Reuters)

“The silver lining to this horrible pandemic is that it has starkly highlighted digital inequality in the country and provides an opportunity to fast track regulatory processes that we have failed to move on for years … in the case of spectrum assignments for next generation technologies …” said Alison Gillwald, executive director at Research ICT Africa.

Gillwald is referring to the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa)’s temporary release of spectrum last Friday to ease congestion and improve network connectivity during the national lockdown.

Many South Africans are staying at home to adhere to the lockdown regulations. This means more strain on data networks for entertainment and work. To deal with the increase in demand, Icasa has made spectrum bands available to Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, Liquid Telecom and Rain.

Icasa said the release will help to “ease network congestion, maintain good quality of broadband services and enable licensees to lower cost of access to consumers”.

Network providers have been asking for this for nearly two decades and have welcomed the move but pointed to its temporary nature with the allocation ending on November 30. There is a R10000 daily fine for providers that keep using spectrum after this.

“The fact is what has happened now validates everything that the networks have been seeing over the last few years. If you want cheaper data, give them more spectrum,” said Steven Ambrose of Strategy Worx, a business technology consultancy. He added that the temporary release of spectrum will help enable network providers to further drop data prices.

Ambrose explained that networks have been “clamouring” for more spectrum since the early 2000s but for political reasons, the issue was not dealt with. He said the release of the spectrum even now is due to political reasons. “It’s also political, they had to be seen doing something”.

Spectrum refers to the invisible radio frequencies that wireless signals travel over. Network providers use it to enable their customers to make voice calls or connect to the internet. The higher end spectrum is crucial for the rollout of new data technologies such as 5G and even 4G, and older technology which mobile operators have struggled to roll out in South Africa due to the limitations in spectrum.

But there is a catch.

Ambrose said the higher frequencies which are now available to network providers require them to have new infrastructure to work them. He said if the networks can plan for it, they can go to their suppliers and ask for antenna, radio parts and systems to work with the new frequencies which are allocated to them.

Vodacom last week committed R500-million to accelerate network infrastructure spend over the next two months. It also said mobile network traffic has increased by around 40% during the lockdown and demand for data has also risen, following the network cutting data prices by 30% at the beginning of this month.

MTN said it will also have to roll out new units to use the extra spectrum.

MTN’s immediate focus, in deploying the spectrum, will be to ease congestion and provide its “customers with further cost reductions, to help ease the financial pressure many South Africans are currently facing,” said executive for corporate affairs Jacqui O’Sullivan.

“Spectrum is the oxygen of any mobile operator. South Africa has never had 4G spectrum formally allocated. Mobile operators have repurposed existing spectrum to make it work for 4G technologies,” said O’Sullivan, adding that spectrum is not alone in influencing the cost to communicate in country.

There are factors such as exchange rates, electricity costs, security free and fuel prices that are contributors, but additional spectrum will certainly bring about significant change in the local industry.

Ambrose added that for networks to continue to deliver the services, Icasa should speed up the permanent release of spectrum and as the country uplifts Covid-19 measures, it could help to grow the country’s economy. He said one of the keys to turn the economy around is “ubiquitous, fast and well-priced telecommunications, and if the country wants to deliver that they have to give them spectrum.

Icasa has, for now, reiterated that the allocation is temporary.

Tshegofatso Mathe is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the Mail & Guardian