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Spectrum sorted, speed not yet

Six operators won lots in SA’s long-awaited spectrum auction, but we have to wait a little longer for faster mobile broadband, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

Finally, South Africa’s mobile operators have been granted radio frequency spectrum that allows them to provide high-speed broadband efficiently, with greater capacity, at higher speed.

However, users should not expect an overnight move from spectrum allocation to universal high-speed broadband.

Six bidders agreed to pay a total of R14,47-billion for a total of 306 Megahertz (MHz) in four bands known as “high-demand spectrum”, ideal for 4G and 5G wireless broadband. MTN and Vodacom each agreed to pay just over R5-billion for, respectively, 100 and 110 MHz of spectrum. Telkom put up R2.1-billion for 42 MHz, Rain R1,43-billion for 40MHz, Cell C R288-million for 10MHz, and Liquid Telecom R111-million for 4MHz, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) announced on Thursday.

Bidder 700MHz800MHz2600MHz3500MHzTotal (ZAR)
Liquid Telecom4111,000,000.00
Cell C10288,200,000.00

Icasa chairperson Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng said: “We look forward to all South Africans benefitting from the dividends of these regulatory interventions, and to seeing the proceeds of the auction being put to good use for the benefit of all South Africans. This auction was indeed in the best interest of all South Africans.”

However, Graham de Vries, general manager of regulatory affairs at MTN, warned that the change in the connectivity landscape would not happen immediately.

“We are going to have to do some radio frequency replanning,” he told Gadget. “Even though we know today that the auction was successful, and we have 100MHz across the 800, 2600 and 3500 bands, we don’t know exactly which particular frequencies will be assigned to us.

“That particular process only starts this week, and only then will we know exactly what kind of frequencies we will have. And only then can the planning period start to do the planning and then also the transition. We’re certainly going to take a few months to do the transition and to make sure that the network keeps up and running. It’s always a story of, you need to keep an aircraft in the air while you change the engines, without the passengers knowing.”

The key question, for consumers, is whether this will result in mobile data costs coming down for the mass market.

“That’s always a difficult question,” said De Vries. “We’d like to do it of course, and it has been coming down over the last couple of years. But at the same time, we see electricity rates going up along with other input costs, such as forex with which we buy international products. Certainly, it is on the cards, but there are quite a few decisions that still need to be taken.

Vodacom Group CEO Shameel Joosub described the outcome of the auction as a win for all customers, who “can in the coming years benefit from even wider coverage, faster speeds and enhanced network quality”.

He spelled out Vodacom’s plans: “Once the auction process is fully concluded, Vodacom’s immediate focus will be on the deployment of valuable spectrum to extend both 4G and 5G network coverage to more parts of the country and improve quality of service while we continue to address the cost to communicate. The licensing of new spectrum in South Africa is also expected to accelerate post-pandemic economic recovery and fast track digital inclusion.”

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