Temporary COVID-19 spectrum – a missed opportunity for some regulatory innovation?

The temporary assignment of spectrum follows a directive to ICASA from the Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies a few weeks ago (mid-March 2020) to release spectrum to make more of it available to meet the unprecedented demand for bandwidth with the COVID-19 lockdown and to alleviate large-scale digital exclusion in South Africa, in any way, during the country’s lockdown.

Only 17 out of the 35 applications for temporary spectrum that complied with the narrow provisions of ICASA’s application process will be licensed. Dominant players in the mobile market , MTN and Vodacom, received portions of spectrum in every band, with Telkom, Liquid and Rain receiving supplementary spectrum to their legacy assignments in the high demand bands. Cell C did not bid as it has a roaming agreement with MTN.

With MTN and Vodacom the only players with pockets deep enough to enter the bidding, this probably does not look very different from the potential outcome of the auction for radio licences in these bands later this year.

  • The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) has assigned spectrum to 17 of the 35 applicants that complied with the provision of their temporary spectrum invitation. The dominant players in the market MTN and Vodacom were granted spectrum in all the available bands, with Telkom, Liquid and Rain being given some additional spectrum to supplement their legacy spectrum in these bands.
  • ICASA has also extended the validity of existing radio frequency spectrum licences by three months and has encouraged spectrum sharing by operators following a Ministerial directive to deal with the upsurge in demand for bandwidth during the COVID-19 lockdown.
  • The Ministry and the Authority have emphasised that the arrangements are temporary and extraordinary and that the pre-COVID-19 status quo will be reverted to within three months of the end of the national state of disaster or by November 30th the latest.
  • The limited provisions set by ICASA for who could apply for spectrum, have allowed the regulator to test what the likely outcomes of the auction later this year might be and will provide much needed relief to spectrum hungry operators who have not been able to access new spectrum for over a decade.
  • The opening up of the market to three TV white space operators who were granted secondary spectrum for the first time, demonstrates more progressive thinking about getting cheaper technologies and services into the market.
  • Could the directive and regulations for temporary COVID-19 spectrum not be used more experimentally by opening up opportunities  for the innovative deployment of complementary technologies and services to meet the diverse needs of the country – particularly to bring the other half of South Africans not online, into the digital economy and to redress the inequality the novel coronavirus pandemic has brought into sharp relief?

Suggested citation

Gillwald, A., Hadzic, C., & Aguera, P. (2020). Temporary COVID-19 Spectrum – a Missed Opportunity for Some Regulatory Innovation? Policy Brief, Research ICT Africa, Apr. 2020, https://researchictafrica.net/2020/04/29/temporary-covid-19-spectrum-a-missed-opportunity-for-some-regulatory-innovation/.