ICASA ordered to halt spectrum auction

Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams South Africa.jpg

South African regulator ICASA has been ordered to halt the country's spectrum auction.

The High court of Pretoria has prohibited the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) from progressing the country's spectrum auction.

According to court papers seen by Reuters, ICASA is not permitted to assess the applications it has received for the licensing of high-demand spectrum, due to Telkom and broadcaster Etv being awarded an interdict in a separate case.

Local agencies have quoted communications and digital technologies minister, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams (pictured), as saying that the ministry is looking to mediate the dispute between all involved parties.

“Government would like to see the auctioning of spectrum taking place without delay. The department remains committed and focused on completing the Broadcasting Digital Migration project, and switching off all analogue transmitters, in line with the announcement made by President Cyril Ramaphosa during this year’s State of the Nation Address,” she said.

Ndabeni-Abrahams also called on all parties and the sector to work together in the spirit of “give and take” to avert further delays on auctioning of spectrum.

ICASA first invited applications in October of last year.

A timeline published by ICASA in February said the bidder seminar, mock auction and actual auction, would commence by 31 March 2021, following " the conclusion of a contract with the external and independent Auctioneer who will be overseeing and managing the entire auction process".

Chairperson Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng, said at the time: "The conclusion of a contract and appointment of the service provider for the auction remains a key factor, and we remain confident that we are not off the track but in a better position to complete the licensing of high demand spectrum."

At that point, ICASA had received submissions from Vodacom, MTN, Telkom SA, Cell C and Rain Networks, and Liquid Telecom.

While it is unusual for court orders to stop spectrum auctions, this isn't the first such case of recent months. In November, Sweden was forced to put the brakes on its 5G auction after a legal challenge from Huawei.

South Africa launched 5G services in May 2020 when Vodacom Group claimed a continent-wide first with the launch of its commercial mobile 5G network. As many as 20 sites went live across Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town.

Data released last month by consultancy Africa Analysis estimated that South Africa's 5G subscriptions could reach 11 million by 2025, up from an estimated 90,000 subscribers at the end of 2020 and population coverage of 4.4%.

Currently South Africa's 5G spectrum is provided under temporary allowances, made available to fast-track the initial launch of 5G and support data demands during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The country's last spectrum auction, planned for 2016, was also halted due to a dispute that took two years to resolve. After objecting to the invitation to apply, former telecoms minister Siyabonga Cwele filed an application to block the proposed auction of LTE-suitable spectrum in the 700MHz, 800MHz and 2600MHz bands.

The minister and ICASA agreed to settle the despite in September 2018. On this latest delay, ICASA has said it is planning to appeal the court order.