Spectrum – what is all the fuss about?

When it comes to high data prices and slow mobile internet, “spectrum” is the first word on the lips of the experts. The high cost to communicate and spectrum have become synonymous in South Africa. But why is spectrum to blame? And what is spectrum exactly?

We can cut mobile data prices in half if we received spectrum” – Vodacom CEO, October 2018

What is Spectrum?

Spectrum allocation is controlled by Government and refers to the radio frequencies that data service providers (mobile operators, radio stations, internet service providers) use to communicate wirelessly over the airwaves. In terms of mobile operators, spectrum represents the capacity mobile operators have to offer their services. The amount of spectrum an operator has available determines the speeds of data transfer they can offer and the number of subscribers they can serve. In other words, the more spectrum a service provider has, the better the data service it can provide.

More spectrum means better, faster internet for South African citizens.

Spectrum – The Digital Divide

In the late 1990s, South Africa was considered one of the 10 most connected nations in the world but has since fallen to a rank of 72. There have been countless calls to Government to provide clarity and fast-track spectrum allocation for the Telecom Service Providers (Telcos). Network operators in South Africa attribute the lack of spectrum as a primary hindrance to its ability to roll out services and reduce the cost to communicate.

Without new spectrum mobile operators are forced to resort to the costly process of building new base stations.  High infrastructure costs mean that the expansion of coverage into rural areas is limited and that data prices remain stubbornly high.

Considering the low levels of fixed-line penetration in the country, we believe that mobile technology has a leading role in extending broadband access to all South African citizens as well as supporting government’s 2020 Connect ambitions” – Jannie van Zyl, Vodacom Executive Head of Innovation.

It is South Africa’s poor who suffer the most. A recent study by Research ICT Africa shows that while South Africa has a mobile phone penetration rate of 84%, it only has a 53% internet penetration rate.  This is largely attributed to the high cost to connect according to South Africans interviewed.

According to Vodacom Group CTO, Andries Delport, there is a need for around 3 000 new base stations, at a cost of R1.5-million per station, to include the last of the rural areas.

If Government provides the additional spectrum, Telcos would be able to extend their existing LTE coverage through their existing base stations across the country as opposed to building more base stations.

Without Spectrum South Africa is set to fall fatally behind in the global technology evolution.

Spectrum – the 4th Industrial Revolution

Spectrum is a critical enabler in South Africa’s participation in the 4th Industrial Revolution and is regarded by Government as necessary to overcome digital exclusion and to drive inclusive growth and innovation.

In addition to the socio-economic ramifications of the spectrum shortage, South Africa’s technological development also hinges on the release of spectrum. Increased availability of high-demand spectrum has the potential to stimulate innovation and open the way for the country’s full participation in the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The growth implications of South Africa’s spectrum scarcity is already clearly visible. Our neighbours are evolving while South Africa’s development is stagnating. Vodacom has launched Africa’s first commercial 5G service in Lesotho. If South Africa does not release additional wireless network capacity, mobile carriers will not be able to launch 5G services in the country.

Spectrum – Light at the End of the Tunnel?

There is at last some hope of a resolution. Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS), Siyabonga Cwele, recently announced that by April 2019 an auction of 4G mobile spectrum will be held. The government has further committed to make 5G licenses available by 2020. The very clear recent directive from President Ramaphosa has served as a catalyst in this hard-fought spectrum battle.