From a policy perspective, 2023 started with a lot of hope and ambition in the telecommunications sector, writes Nic Laschinger, chief technology officer of Euphoria Telecom.
Following the Independent Communication Authority of South Africa (ICASA)’s successful spectrum auction in 2022, it was expected that more spectrum would be released. We also expected to see progress on digital migration, and the rollout of bold plans for integrating emerging technologies like advanced artificial intelligence.
While there has been progress on some of those fronts, delays have occurred on others, in addition to policy own-goals. For the industry to keep growing and advancing in 2024 and beyond, it needs to turn more of those policy delays and own goals into wins. To understand how that might happen, it’s worth understanding where things went right and where room for improvement lies.
Spectrum auction delays
After ICASA’s highly successful spectrum auction in 2022, there was a lot of hope that it would hold another one in 2023. Having earned R14 billion from the previous auction, there was a widespread assumption that it would want to maintain momentum and hold another. This spectrum is essential for the rollout of 4G and 5G connectivity – the high-speed mobile network standards that are essential for everything from industrial automation to online gaming, telemedicine, and video conferencing.
Unfortunately, the next auction has been delayed. The authority now plans to hold the next auction in early 2024. However, even that might not happen. In November, Telkom asked ICASA to postpone the auction to 2025. Considering the court action that preceded the last auction, it wouldn’t be surprising if we see further delays.
Analogue switch off not the success it should be
One of the reasons that Telkom has requested a delay is because of what it believes are flaws in the digital migration system. Digital migration, which involves switching off analogue TV broadcast signals and replacing them with digital ones, has long been a bugbear for the South African telecommunication sector.
The process was originally meant to be completed by 2015. For various reasons, including cabinet reshuffles and court action by affected parties, the process was massively delayed. Telcos found it difficult to roll out high-speed connection standards without the radio waves freed up from that migration. In July, Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies Mondli Gongulube confirmed that the process was finally complete.
If Telkom is to be believed, however, it might not have been. It and players in the space, claim that they’re still experiencing interference on some of the auctioned-off bands, suggesting that a further auction may not be feasible. Underserved and rural areas will continue to struggle for quality connectivity until these issues are resolved.
Policymakers still scoring own goals
That wouldn’t be as big a problem if other affordable forms of connectivity were readily available. Unfortunately, policymakers keep scoring own goals on this front.
Take Starlink, for example. Even if you’re not a fan of Elon Musk, there’s no doubt that the satellite-based internet service could be important for providing high-speed internet connectivity in rural and underserved areas. Unfortunately, long-standing (and probably out-of-date) policies mean Starlink cannot launch in South Africa.
A few intrepid entrepreneurs have used the company’s roaming capabilities to import and sell the service here. To the extent that more people are now using Starlink than ADSL in South Africa. Rather than acknowledging the demand for such services in South Africa and enabling them, the regulator has instead gone after importers and members of the public, insisting that using Starlink in South Africa is illegal.
New laws allow for greater competition
One bright spot in the year was the June introduction of new laws that will enable spectrum-sharing between mobile networks, decreasing costs across the industry. They’ll also allow for more new mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) by incentivising existing mobile networks to open up to them.
These laws also have the potential to reduce international roaming costs. They will empower ICASA to regulate the roaming agreements and pricing between South African mobile networks and their international counterparts. For anyone who’s received an astronomical bill after turning roaming on during an international trip, that will be a massive relief.
Let connectivity grow unhindered
While there have undoubtedly been tremendous connectivity gains in South Africa, we’re also nowhere near as connected as we should be. To change that, we need to see fewer policy missteps, both in formulation and implementation.