BUSINESS Leadership South Africa (BLSA) has slammed the Independent Communications Authority (Icasa) for plans to terminate the emergency spectrum at the end of November, saying it will harm the economy.
In her weekly newsletter BLSA chief executive Busi Mavuso said that despite warnings of the damage to the economy and the fight against the pandemic, Icasa was pressing ahead with a plan to terminate access to emergency spectrum at end-November.
“This will make it harder for workers to connect from home, leaving businesses with a difficult choice – either force workers back into the office, put them on leave or make them redundant. The move by Icasa has particularly hit the business process outsourcing sector, the one area of the economy that has managed to grow employment during the pandemic. It relies on good broadband to connect workers for tasks like call centre operations,” said Mavuso.
Mavuso said efficient mobile broadband was particularly important for township sectors, which did not have high fixed line penetration and temporary workers who do not want the cost and long-term contracts of other forms of access.
Under disaster regulations implemented in April last year, Icasa assigned emergency radio frequency spectrum to major mobile operators including MTN, Vodacom and Telkom paving the way for the easing of the network congestion due to the Covid19 pandemic.
At the time Icasa said that the release of the spectrum would help maintain good quality broadband services, and aid licensees to lower the cost of access to digital communication for customers.
The emergency spectrum was a temporary measure that would be used until either three months after the national disaster period had ended or the end of November 2020.
Icasa has since extended the deadline for the return of spectrum twice. The last expiry date was at the end of August. At the end of August Icasa said the temporary spectrum would have to be returned at the end of November citing the gradual reopening of the economy. It also said it cannot allow “the temporary spectrum assignment to assume a state of permanence”.
Mavuso said South Africa should be doing everything possible to enable the economy to recover.
“Of course, what we really need is a long-term solution to the shortage of spectrum available in South Africa,
a process that has been under way for over a decade, but remains marred by policy sequencing problems and litigation. Emergency spectrum should remain in place until that process is resolved,” said Mavuso.
She believed Icasa's decision on the emergency spectrum might add to the litigation that it is embroiled in.
“Icasa is legally required to consider the interests of end users when it makes its decisions, but I cannot imagine any possible justification for this decision from an end-user's perspective,” said Mavuso, adding that it makes it harder for people to obtain information to fight the pandemic and harder for them to work safely.
“While Icasa is an independent regulator, I am also astounded that there hasn't been a stronger outcry from the political level, especially given the approaching local government elections. The prospect of digital load shedding is surely one that voters will care about,” Mavuso said.
Last week the South African Communications Forum also lambasted Icasa, saying Icasa should reconsider its decision to terminate this access as the effect would be to harm consumers and undermine the economy.
Earlier this month the court issued an order setting aside Icasa's decision to publish an invitation to apply for spectrum, after the regulator and telecommunication companies in the matter failed to reach a settlement over the terms of the auction.