Amid legal battle, Icasa offers temporary spectrum again

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  • Icasa allocated temporary spectrum at the start of the pandemic to allow cellphone companies to cope with surging data demand.
  • But its decision to withdraw it triggered a legal battle.
  • Now, Icasa is inviting mobile operators to apply for temporary spectrum again.

As the auction of permanent allocations of radio frequency spectrum remains hamstrung by litigation, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) is now inviting mobile network operators to apply for temporary spectrum allocations. 

At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, Icasa issued temporary spectrum to providers to cope with the surge in work-from-home data demands during lockdown.

MTN, for example, reported a 165% increase in data traffic since the start of the pandemic.

Icasa then announced the temporary spectrum would be withdrawn at the end of November.

Vodacom, MTN and Telkom objected, and approached the court to seek an urgent interdict to prevent that from happening.

The case was due to be heard next week. 

But on Wednesday, Icasa announced providers could now submit applications for temporary spectrum for a seven-month period ending 30 June 2022, or three months after the termination of the national state of disaster, whichever came first.

Icasa chairperson Keanetswe Modimeng said the invitation showed the authority was "not a spectrum-hoarding regulator", adding the arrangement was an improved pro-competitive interim measure.

"This provisional arrangement is tailored to deal with any network issues which may affect the provision of services to consumers in the intervening period," added Modimoeng. 

Icasa said companies would have to submit their applications by no later than 17 November 2021.

"The authority believes that it is in the best interest of the public to have a provisional spectrum licensing arrangement in place over the next seven months. This will enable all other inherent licensing processes to conclude while mitigating any possible service disruptions."

The auction of permanent high-demand spectrum was halted after Telkom and e.tv obtained an interdict against the process, citing flaws in Icasa's process. 

Icasa said it was still confident it could hold the auction in March 2022. 

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