Icasa set to release spectrum to meet increased demand – but it may only be temporary

Communications regulator set to release spectrum next week to meet increased network demand, but it may only be temporary. Picture: GCIS
Communications regulator set to release spectrum next week to meet increased network demand, but it may only be temporary. Picture: GCIS

The filling of vacancies in key chapter 9 institutions is among parliamentary decisions that are hanging in the balance.

It forms part of the current uncertainty over the work of Parliament, given the national state of disaster – which could be extended beyond its given three-month time frame.

This week, the term of four councillors at regulating body the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) ended.

Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams has arranged that they stay in office for another 45 days, as provided by law, while the department seeks answers from Parliament and government on how best to maintain the effective provision of services, such as planned spectrum rollout, during the current crisis.

Parliament closed before it could see the process of appointing new councillors through, but interviews were concluded, said Ndabeni-Abrahams.

Her department is responsible for helping Icasa expedite the country’s digital migration policy and, in so doing, boost the economy.

In February, Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu wrote to Thandi Modise, Speaker of the National Assembly, alerting her to the looming vacancy in his office: his fixed, seven-year term ends in November.

“The Auditor-General advised the Speaker on February 18 of the pending vacancy. All processes will be triggered from that end once normal work resumes,” said Makwetu’s spokesperson, Africa Boso.

Ndabeni-Abrahams said the legal workstream in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s national command council was looking at innovative ways to ensure that government continued functioning, including in the event of the national state of disaster going beyond three months.

In an interview on Wednesday, the minister elaborated: “The legal [department] is consulting with everyone who is learned to determine what powers government can exercise. If, for example, we have to bypass Parliament, are we allowed to do so? Will the courts allow that? And, what will be the impact in terms of the authority of Parliament? These are the things that are being explored.”

Ndabeni-Abrahams said her office was seeking legal advice about whether it was possible for “Parliament to reconvene virtually, so it can fast track the appointment process” at Icasa.

We want to prepare in case we go beyond the three months

Alternatively, she said, her office was trying to determine if “the law can allow the minister to make an intervention, given this abnormal situation”.

She said the country had to “prepare beyond, because we are uncertain of what is going to happen”, adding that other countries had extended the duration of their national state of disaster.

“We want to prepare in case we go beyond the three months. If so, we need to determine what we can do because we have to continue rendering services to the people.”

However, presidency spokesperson Khusela Diko said: “The declaration of a national state of disaster does not allow for the bypassing of Parliament in any of its duties. The presidency understands that Parliament may have considered alternative ways of conducting its business.”

On Friday, Icasa said it was “working on urgent regulations to enable the release of spectrum on a temporary basis, so that the industry can meet increased demand as a result of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic”.

The regulator’s spokesperson, Paseka Maleka, did not provide further details, but City Press has learnt that a major announcement regarding the granting of spectrum relief is scheduled to be made tomorrow.

The intervention is necessary because most people are working from home

Insiders said that once the state of disaster ended, the relief spectrum would be withdrawn.

“The intervention is necessary because most people are working from home, and this has added traffic to the telecommunication networks. There is also a spike in global broadband demand,” said a person close to the process.

The intervention will enable the telecom industry to meet demand for the duration of the state of disaster.

“Home schooling is also a possibility in the next few months, and it will need more effective broadband. The relief will grant the industry more capacity so that the economy can thrive. It will also enhance the quality of teleconferencing and one’s experience of working from home, as well as improve rural connectivity,” said the source.

Ndabeni-Abrahams said she was awaiting feedback from Icasa in terms of granting spectrum relief.

“We need to make sure that we do not close competition. If this measure is an interim relief, what does that mean? Are you saying that you will allow people to come and deploy the [transmission] towers in your area? Do you expect them to remove the towers in six months? If not, how are we going to trace the infrastructure that will be deployed in this period? Remember that the directives the minister has issued are only applicable until the date that the president declares the national state of disaster to be over.”

Ndabeni-Abrahams said everything should be done lawfully, “so we should not be reckless”.

“We should tick all our boxes and check everything carefully. And if the regulations allow us to proceed, I do not see any harm being caused.”

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