South Africans who work from home, study online and try to keep their businesses alive rely on connectivity, without which it all ends.

By Paul Colmer, exco member of Wireless Access Providers Association (WAPA)

“Digital loadshedding” is small-fry compared with digital fratricide. ICASA is effectively snuffing the concerted and, quite frankly, miraculous efforts of so many businesses, workers and students, who have survived lockdown using nothing but cellular connectivity, by reclaiming 5G spectrum from the mobile networks.

You could expect the huge media outcry from the mobile networks about ICASA’s move. They stand to lose billions. It’s also not difficult to imagine Business Leadership South Africa’s (BLSA) partisan interests. WAPA, however, has no such interests. In fact, quite the opposite, our members stand to gain when ICASA reclaims the spectrum.

Think about it, when ICASA shuts down bandwidth that has helped MTN alone double its data volume since the start of lockdown, the network is going to be so heavily congested it will slow to a crawl.

Customers will jump ship left, right, and centre, but to where? Our members, the wireless Internet service providers (WISP) had to meet the connectivity needs of customers during lockdown, which about doubled since the start of lockdown, with the same networks they had before lockdown started. They never got a whole bunch of new spectrum from ICASA, even though we would have benefitted enormously from Wi-Fi 6E spectrum allocations, which we’re currently negotiating for. Our members had to struggle through, like so many South Africans trying to figure out how to simply get the job done.

The cellular networks did a good job keeping people going during lockdown. But what are people supposed to do now? Wireless Internet works because it’s robust, reliable, high-speed and cost-effective. So much so that even the people who suddenly get fibre in smaller towns and switch hoping for great speeds often switch back to wireless again shortly afterwards. And it offers proper broadband, unlike you get from oversubscribed or congested cellular networks, or such as when you’re outside the small percentage of 4G or LTE coverage and get lumped with glacial 3G connectivity.

When ICASA sucks back the 5G spectrum it allocated to the mobile networks, effectively scuppering their quality of service and experience, WISPs will be the only way a lot of people are going to be able to keep working, studying and running their businesses effectively. Our members stand to benefit from what I feel is, frankly, poor decision-making at ICASA.

Yet, even as we engage ICASA on a number of issues, including WiFi 6E, so that we can help owner-operated internet businesses improve the lives of ordinary South Africans in the communities where they live, wireless Internet service providers will pick up the slack and keep the digital lights on.