Saturday, 17 April 2021

South Africa spectrum auction grinds to a halt over legal challenge

by Harry Baldock, Total Telecom
Tuesday 09 March 21

The nation’s high court has ordered that the regulator pause proceedings while it hears demands from Telkom and e.tv.

In October 2020, South Africa’s regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), announced that it was seeking bidders for its upcoming spectrum auction. By December, six companies had reportedly applied to participate, though the regulator had pushed back the application deadline by a month to accommodate the finalisation of the contract with the independent auctioneer…

In October 2020, South Africa’s regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), announced that it was seeking bidders for its upcoming spectrum auction. By December, six companies had reportedly applied to participate, though the regulator had pushed back the application deadline by a month to accommodate the finalisation of the contract with the independent auctioneer.
 
Now, however, it appears the process will face a much more serious delay, with the South African high court ordering ICASA to pause proceedings while it hears complaints from Telkom and broadcaster e.tv. The ruling means that the regulator cannot process or act on any spectrum applications until the court case is complete.
 
The auction was due to offer the operators additional spectrum in the 700 MHz, 800 MHz, 2,600 MHz and 3,500 MHz bands, thereby allowing them to bolster their capacity in 4G as well as gradually expanding their 5G services.
 
Telkom and e.tv’s complaints challenge the legality of the upcoming auction process, with the crux of their argument that ICASA must first oversee the migration of broadcast services from analogue to digital by June 30th, thereby ensuring that spectrum in the 700 MHz and 800 MHz bands will be fully available for the mobile operators. 
 
Current plans for the migration are substantially slower than the deadline sought by Telkom and e.tv, with President Cyril Ramaphosa suggesting the process would be completed by March 2022 in his State of the Nation address in last month. 
 
Telkom noted that the court’s decision to suspend the auction process reflects the questionable legality of the auction in its current form. Rival MTN has also legally challenged the terms of the auction, albeit on different grounds, the results of which are expected later this week.
 
But despite their misgivings about the auction itself, a further delay to spectrum availability be significant headache for the operators, further slowing their plans for a broader 5G rollout. 
 
Last year, MTN, Vodacom and Telkom were already awarded temporary spectrum licences in the bands soon to be auctioned, in efforts to boost their networks during the coronavirus pandemic. These licences remain valid until the auction itself.
 
 
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