This is according to Telkom CEO Sipho Maseko, who spoke to SABC News about the meeting Icasa called with South Africa’s major mobile network operators.
MyBroadband also spoke to an industry source with knowledge of what was discussed at the meeting. They said that Icasa committed to issuing a notice on Wednesday or Thursday this week.
Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, Cell C, Rain, and Liquid Intelligent Technologies met with Icasa on Monday afternoon to discuss the regulator’s decision to claw back radio frequency spectrum assigned at the start of South Africa’s Covid–19 epidemic.
Spectrum represents raw network capacity and is the lifeblood of mobile operators like Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, Cell C, and Rain.
Icasa assigned the spectrum on an emergency, temporary basis under the National State of Disaster regulations for the Covid–19 pandemic.
It said that the temporary spectrum would be valid for three months or would expire three months after the State of Disaster ended — whichever came first.
After extending the temporary assignments every quarter, Icasa issued a notice at the end of August informing the networks that they must return the spectrum on 30 November.
This led to an outcry, with MTN and Telkom warning that Icasa’s decision would have catastrophic consequences on South African end-users.
Willington Ngwepe, Icasa CEO
Together with other operators, MTN and Telkom explained that data traffic on their network remains much higher than their pre-pandemic levels.
They argued that revoking the temporary spectrum would cause significant network congestion and could even lead to price increases when South Africa could ill-afford it.
The two operators ultimately filed papers in the Pretoria High Court to block Icasa from taking back the temporary spectrum.
To de-escalate the situation, Icasa CEO Willington Ngwepe sent letters to Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, Cell C, Liquid Intelligent Technologies, and Rain, inviting them to an online meeting on Monday at 14:00.
Icasa has proposed an amendment to the current Covid–19 regulations that radio frequency spectrum issued on an emergency basis be re-issued under a new “provisional assignment” scheme.
The new applications will cover the 700MHz, 800MHz, 2300MHz, 2600MHz and 3500MHz spectrum bands.
Icasa’s proposal is in-line with communications minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni’s comments in October that government was considering “interim” spectrum assignments to bridge the gap between the end of November and March next year.
March 2022 is a significant date because that’s when Icasa hopes to have concluded an auction and licensing for the sought-after spectrum.
According to MyBroadband’s source, the meeting with Icasa was not a consultation.
The regulator was simply informing South Africa’s wireless carriers what to expect in the coming week.
It is unclear precisely what regulatory process Icasa would follow, but in essence, it will ask operators to give back the temporary spectrum and reapply for frequencies to tide them over until March next year.
While the spectrum auction is scheduled to happen in March 2022, it is worth noting that industry insiders believe the deadline is unrealistic and is setting Icasa up for failure.
It is hoped that Icasa’s proposed solution will consider the scenario that the spectrum auction needs to be delayed.
Our source said that Icasa did not give much attention to the spectrum auction during its discussion with operators on Monday.
This caused concerns that Icasa will repeat many of the same mistakes it made with its previous attempt to auction the spectrum.
MyBroadband contacted Rain, MTN, and Liquid for feedback, and they said that they could not comment on the meeting with Icasa at this time.
Vodacom said it would provide feedback as soon as it could.
“We are supportive of ICASA proposing an out of court remedy,” said Rain CEO Brandon Leigh.
“Unfortunately, I can’t comment further at this stage.”
Liquid said that the meeting was held on a confidential basis and, as such, it would be inappropriate to comment or report on the discussions.
“It was held in a collegial atmosphere with a focus on finding solutions.”