ICASA’s quick spectrum release

ICASA’s quick spectrum release in response to the COVID-19 pandemic should be the new normal.

The COVID-19 pandemic short-circuited the traditional policy and regulatory frameworks, and allocated high demand spectrum within 10 days, after an unsuccessful 14 year process (2006-2020).

The spike in broadband demand, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, prompted ICASA to release high demand spectrum with the objectives to ease network congestion, lower the price of access and ensure quality of service. A total of 35 applications were received in response to ICASA’s invitation to apply, issued on the 6th of April. On the 17th of April, ICASA released the spectrum in the 700/800Mhz, 2300MHz, 2600MHz and 3500MHz bands to Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, Cell C, Liquid and RAIN.

More spectrum for an operator means that more data can be sold per site, improving data speed and providing the opportunity for lower end-user prices. The opportunity cost of the failure to release high demand spectrum over past 14 years becomes obvious given the benefits that materialise as a result of this emergency spectrum allocation.

One of the reasons why spectrum has taken so long to be allocated in South Africa is because of confusion between (and amongst) policymakers and the regulator. There are too many objectives that need to be met: coverage, black economic empowerment, affordability, representation for people with disabilities, gender balance. Many of these objectives require compromise. Increasing coverage sacrifices affordability. BEE compromises affordability. Representation for minority groups compromises affordability. The COVID-19 pandemic provided, for the first time, absolute clarity for both policymakers and government. How can spectrum allow operators to provide better and cheaper services? And the results are stunning. High demand spectrum allocated to 6 operators in just over 10 days. With the impact of efficient spectrum allocation for everyone to see, what is the way forward?
Spectrum allocation needs to be fair, efficient and swift. It needs to be free of political interference, similar to central banks. A separate agency for spectrum management, with the guiding principles of spectrum efficiency and fair competition, may be a solution for South Africa.

The COVID-19 response shows what clarity of purpose is like. This should be the new normal. Regulatory processes should be re-designed around the core function of an ICT regulator with administrative effect at its core. The crisis demonstrated what can be done when policymakers and regulators unite behind the same objective. That should have been the case for the past 14 years and needs to remain the case going forward.