Wholly unscientific justifications for inexplicably weird decisions have been a hallmark of the SA government’s response to Covid-19. The alcohol ban, prevention of e-commerce stores doing even a little economic activity during lockdown, and curfews are some of the lowlights.
The latest confounding decision to withdraw the temporary spectrum from the mobile industry by the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) is a new low in irrationality and pettiness.
Icasa is an agency that is often maligned for imposing the frankly weird regulations the government passes. In this instance, the blundering is all of its own.
At the beginning of lockdown, in no small part to compensate for the lack of new spectrum being allocated in 14 years, Icasa released blocks of these crucial radio frequencies to desperate mobile operators.
The word ‘temporary’ seemed to put off some operators from taking up the offer, including Cell C and Rain. But the other networks gleefully took what they could – remembering that SA hasn’t licenced new spectrum since the advent of 3G a decade and a half ago.
Instead of the new frequencies they need – and because the government has failed to meet the June 2015 deadline to switch off the so-called digital dividend 700Mhz and 800Mhz frequencies used for old-fashioned TV signals – operators have had to re-farm their existing frequencies. It’s obviously not operationally optimal, nor is it cheap to do.
While a series of incompetent communications ministers wasted years trying to redirect a contract for the 5m set-top boxes to the Guptas, the TV signals have remained in use by the TV channels – at least one of which, eMedia, is suing the government to stop those frequencies being auctioned off next year. It appears as if e.tv might be the most affected because of the ANC’s dithering.
Icasa is its own worst enemy
When Icasa announced it was finally holding an auction for spectrum in March 2021, it bizarrely tried to inflict a convoluted process of which operator could bid first and for which frequency ranges – prompting now-abandoned court action that has pushed this auction to March 2022. If it goes ahead at all, given the likelihood of more disputes.
There are already several legal actions on the go. Telkom is suing Icasa to stop the temporary spectrum from being taken back and has now been joined by Vodacom and MTN. Data-only network Rain is now siding with Icasa.
Any world-weary observer of the SA telecoms industry can see further delays coming.
The key problem for me is that Icasa should know better. It is the regulator. Its job is to oversee this fractious industry and its competing commercial interests.
But the ANC government, which doesn’t seem to understand its 1970s-inspired socialist thinking is out of touch with current reality and destructive, keeps imposing these weird ideas about rebalancing the competitive playing fields – like it did when it banned most e-commerce during lockdown.
Icasa should know how litigious the telecoms companies are and stop trying to impose unworkable licence conditions on this inexcusably delayed process. Icasa never learns from its experience, nor its mistakes.
If ever there was a bonafide reason to let market conditions sift the wheat from the chaff, this is it. Stop trying to control the clearly uncontrollable and licence the spectrum in the simplest way, please. Us consumers just want cheaper, better broadband. Stop trying to rewrite human nature and physics and just licence the spectrum already. Please.
This article first appeared in Financial Mail.