Kathy Gibson reports – South Africans have lost out on better coverage and lower data prices for years, as a direct result of regulatory failure and political ideology.

Government policies in telecommunication, spectrum, competition and digital migration have deprived consumers of better ICT services, according to the Free Market Foundation’s 2021 Socio Economic Impact Assessment (SEIA) and market research.

Leon Louw, founder and president of the FMF, points out that South Africa’s mobile network industry is arguably the biggest success story the country has achieved since 1994 – despite government’s bad policies over the years.

Government initially created a duopoly in the mobile environment with the establishment of MTN and Vodacom, he points out. “But they have produced coverage in South Africa that is comparable to the best in the world.

“In South Africa, we have almost two active cell phones per person who is prospectively a cell phone user.

“And this is despite government’s bad policies. The operators were throttled with spectrum, and then expected to produce low cost telecommunications, especially data.”

Today there are six operators competing in the mobile market, but government believes there is not enough competition and wants to introduce a seventh, the so-called wireless open access network (WOAN).

However, Louw points out, what is preventing operators from supplying more and cheaper services is largely government having throttled the most value spectrum that is required to provide low-cost services.

Even if they get access to the low-frequency spectrum much of it is still “dirty” since government has not yet completed the digital migration which would remove analogue broadcasting services from these bands, he adds.

“It is clear that we need a more flexible spectrum policy and allocation, including the ability to trade and share spectrum, and the digital migration must be concluded,” Louw says.

“The South African consumer deserves a better deal, and deserves a government that will stop throttling access.

“It is also time to join the rest of the world,” he adds.

Current policies not only prevent operators from providing better and more cost-effective services in rural areas through the low-frequency bands that are not yet available, they also don’t have access to the higher-frequency spectrums needed to offer efficient 5G and Internet of Things (IoT) networks.

And the proposed spectrum auction could continue to deny these bands to the biggest operators who would be able to roll out the required infrastructure.

“It is time to move to new policies,” Louw says. “And there needs to be a more sophisticated, legitimate allocation of spectrum.”