“Lights stay on” the headline read on a street pole last week. South Africa is so entrapped by Eskom’s broken power supply that it’s now newsworthy when there isn’t any load shedding.
I thought of that street pole headline when news broke that the Independent Communications Regulator of SA (Icasa) had convinced Telkom, MTN and Vodacom to drop their impending lawsuits over spectrum allocation.
This is in fact the second time in a year that Icasa has convinced angry mobile operators to back down from their legal high horses – when it attempted to auction off spectrum this March but foolishly made the auction process unnecessarily complicated.
Last week’s nifty appeal to common sense seems to have been achieved with the judicious use of just one word: provisional as opposed to temporary. This relates to the frequencies the spectrum-starved operators were able to use during lockdown – an arrangement Icasa signalled it would stop this month. When the temporary spectrum was initially offered as lockdown hit last year, some operators asked for a lot, some for a little, some not at all. With this unexpected windfall of additional spectrum, operators have been justifiably wary of giving it up.
Remember that the last time South Africa licenced spectrum for mobile operators was 15 years ago – when 3G was just beginning to take off – and you can see how desperate the networks have become for new bandwidth.
When the temporary allocation expires at the end of this month, Icasa will now issue new licenses for this “provisional” spectrum from 1 December.
Tens of millions of Rands in legal fees have just been saved.
The disrupted auction will finally happen next year, and hopefully, the rollout of 5G networks will provide the much-heralded ultrafast download speeds the technology can deliver.
Icasa CEO Willington Ngwepe deserves a stiff handshake and a strong drink for pulling this off, avoiding further delays in the frequency licensing debacle.
It’s such a man-bites-dog story, isn’t it? Instead of the usual, time-wasting legal fandango, common sense has prevailed. We will have provisional spectrum for Christmas and hopefully the long-awaited 5G auction by Pesach, which is the same time as Easter.
There is so much damage to the country and the economy from the #PresidunceZuma state capture years that we are still dealing with – not least the lack of impetus and understanding of how important the telecoms industry is.
Fixated on mining – especially coal – and the enormous rent that can be extracted, the ANC government and its rich benefactors haven’t noticed the sea of changes in the world. Even The Economist’s front-page headline that “data is the new oil” hasn’t updated the enmeshed political and business elite’s understanding of where future business opportunities are. Only Patrice Motsepe seems to have noticed the renewable potential and has hired former Eskom CEO Brian Dames to run that business stream for his vast empire.
The same huge potential for our country’s future economic activity requires telecoms, wireless broadband, and internet access. If only the ANC Cabinet could understand the shifting sands of commerce and the future of a knowledge economy.
This article first appeared in the Financial Mail