The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) tore into Telkom on Wednesday after the network operator filed papers in the Pretoria High Court to once again block the auctioning of sought-after radio frequency spectrum.
Spectrum is the raw network capacity cellular network operators use that allows mobile devices to communicate with their towers.
South Africa’s mobile carriers maintain that if they get access to more spectrum, they can drastically cut data prices in South Africa while improving network coverage and quality.
Telkom’s concerns with Icasa’s proposed spectrum auction are manifold and include — auctioning spectrum that E-tv refuses to give up by the deadline, not considering Vodacom and MTN’s market dominance, and not licensing a national wireless open-access network at the same time.
“Telkom seeks to, yet again, derail the much anticipated and urgently needed licensing process for the International Mobile Telecommunications spectrum earmarked for auctioning in March this year,” Icasa stated.
The auction was scheduled to happen on 8 March 2022.
“Telkom’s urgent application is supported by a 123-page affidavit, with a total of almost 700 pages of annexures, undoubtedly drafted over several days shortly after the publication of the Invitation To Apply (ITA) for the IMT licensing process on 10 December 2021,” said Icasa.
The industry regulator said it is not surprised by Telkom’s “relentless resort to litigation”, as this conduct stretches back seven years or more.
“Telkom appears hellbent on stalling the Authority’s every effort to licence the high demand spectrum that the sector, country, and our economy so badly needs,” Icasa said.
It said the public interest demands that the licensing of the high-demand spectrum could not be delayed any longer.
“Narrow and selfish commercial interests should give way to the overriding public good of cheaper data, universal access to efficient and reliable connectivity, and high-speed broadband transmission.”
Willington Ngwepe, Icasa CEO
Icasa explained that it received a letter from Telkom on the afternoon of 31 December 2021. Vodacom also sent a confidential letter to the regulator on 1 January 2022.
“Both letters raised varying concerns regarding the ITA process and requested the Authority to consider them,” stated Icasa.
“Telkom requested the Authority to respond by no later than Tuesday, 4 January 2022, failing which it would approach the court on an urgent basis for relief.”
Icasa said it responded on Monday, 3 January to both companies. It told them that it planned to respond comprehensively by Friday, 7 January 2022, and undertook to consider the various concerns raised.
Despite this undertaking, Telkom elected to file papers.
“Telkom launched what can only be seen as a pre-emptive strike by filing an urgent application with the High Court to stall the ITA process and the auction intended for March 2022,” said Icasa.
Icasa said that in light of the voluminous court papers Telkom served on it late yesterday, 4 January, it can no longer respond to the respective parties’ correspondence by Friday.
“It is almost both necessary and reasonable for the Authority to study the court papers, consult with its lawyers, and take an informed and carefully considered decision before responding to Telkom and Vodacom’s correspondence,” Icasa stated.
“The Authority will, given the prevailing circumstances, respond to the correspondence in due course.”
In the meantime, Icasa emphasised the ITA published on 10 December 2021 with its timetable remain intact.
“The Authority’s lawyers will deal with the litigation instituted by Telkom and advise on the way forward. The Authority will henceforth refrain from debating in the interim the merits or demerits of the case in the media.”