Early this week we learnt that the Council of Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA South Africa’s equivalent of POTRAZ) was going to be taking back the temporary spectrum it had freely given to mobile network operators in South Africa on 30 November this year. We opined this would be devastating news to South Africans and it seemed we were right.
One of South Africa’s largest mobile network operators has confirmed what we suspected. South African mobile internet will be so adversely affected by this change it will practically be unusable especially in high population areas like townships and suburbs especially the ones where most of the poor, who rely on mobile internet as opposed to fixed internet, live.
Since the start of the pandemic, the amount of data traffic that MTN has needed to carry for its customers has more than doubled.
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Removing the temporary spectrum, when the pandemic remains a reality for all South Africans and before Icasa completes the spectrum auction, will have a significant impact on data supply to South Africans.
The impact of the National State of Disaster has not eased since the last extension of temporary spectrum.In fact, since the last extension, South Africa was hit by a record-breaking third wave of infections and was moved to level 4 risk adjustment level which was only dropped to level 3 on 25 July 2021.Part of MTN’s statement on the issue
In basic terms, MTN is saying South African mobile internet will be reduced to an unusable crawl is ICASA takes back the temporary spectrum. Traffic levels have increased by almost 160% ever since the pandemic began as more people are working from home and relying more on the internet for things like shopping and education. There is no way all that surge can be handled without the temporary spectrum.
It’s therefore mind-boggling that, right in the midst of the third wave, ICASA wants to yank bank the temporary spectrum. It seems there is a better option here why not carry out the spectrum auction which ICASA seems so desperate to do while the spectrum is currently still being used. They can then transfer it to the winners who will decide what they want to do with it including leasing it out to current users instead of asking operators to leave the spectrum.
There is a real cost to it all
South African mobile network operators have put the spectrum to good use more than Zimbabwean operators have in my opinion. The government and various institutions have created close to 1000 zero-rated websites and internet-based tools that are being used in the fight against COVID-19 and other related public interest programmes. This has resulted in an effective decrease of 30% in data costs for the average South African.
If the spectrum is taken back it means most of these sites will be removed from zero-rate lists and people would need to pay for data to access them. Given how incomes have been affected most people will be left stranded. The real cost could come in lives lost and an increase in data costs.