SA faces a mobile data crunch over the delay in making spectrum available. (Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)
Cape Town - South Africa does not have the necessary spectrum to cater for the country's growing appetite for mobile data, say experts.
"The number of mobile data users and their average usage are increasing exponentially. Mobile networks will come under increasing strain to meet this demand unless additional spectrum is made available for mobile broadband," Mortimer Hope, director of Spectrum and Public Policy Africa at the GSMA, told Fin24.
In SA, mobile broadband has become a 'battleground' as operators face-off with regulators over the continued delay over spectrum allocation in the country.
Mobile broadband in SA has been hamstrung by a lack of political will to make spectrum in the key 800MHz frequency band available, primarily because of a lack of progress on the country's digital migration process.
And despite a number of delays dating back to 2008, policy makers have set March 2015 as a deadline for direction on policy.
"We expect to have a White Paper on Integrated ICT Policy by the end of this financial year, in March 2015. The Department, working with the regulator, Icasa, will seek to resolve spectrum shortage for network capacity in the short to media term," said Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services, Dr Siyabonga Cwele at the Southern Africa Telecommunication Networks and Applications Conference (Satnac) in Port Elizabeth late in 2014.
But that promise echoed one made by Yunus Carrim in his capacity as the former minister of communications. He promised that SA would have definitive policy on 4G spectrum by March 2014.
In its 2015 Lekgotla, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) called for faster action in SA on digital TV migration which has an international deadline of 2015.
Video content is a major demand driver for high speed broadband. (Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)
"Lekgotla has directed the finalisation of the digital migration process to support broadband roll out. Government must move with the necessary speed to meet the deadline of 15 June 2015," said the ANC.
That action would free up significant spectrum for mobile operators to roll out high speed fourth generation networks.
Vodacom has proposed taking over Neotel in a deal worth R7bn to allow the company to roll out both fibre services as well as wireless broadband thanks to Neotel's spectrum, but has faced objections from both Cell C and MTN.
"The deal will not distort competition. Icasa is here to protect consumers - not to protect competitors from competition," said Vodacom CEO Shameel Joosub.
Rivals are indeed nervous that a Vodacom tie-up with Neotel will frustrate their own fibre broadband plans, but the national broadband policy expects an acceleration in broadband connectivity for South Africans.
According to the former department of communications' presentation to the Portfolio Committee on Communications, in 2013, 33.3% of the South African population had internet access.
No more 'tricks'
However, the department (now renamed the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services) submitted ambitious targets of 50% access at 5mbps by 2016, 90% by 2020, and 100% at 10mbps by 2030.
In SA, Vodacom has around 10 000 base stations and senior rival MTN about 6 000. Despite that, both companies are actively looking to push higher speed long term evolution (LTE) networks by re-farming existing spectrum.
This has proved challenging. Despite the efforts of operators, the lack of spectrum in the key 800MHz band could eventually stifle the mobile ecosystem in SA.
"At some point we can imagine at these growth rates, you run out of tricks, if I can put it that way, because these are very technical engineering frequency optimisation types of things that we have to do," Steven Barnwell managing executive for Vodacom's operations in the Western Cape region recently told Fin24.
Neotel is a key battleground in the mobile broadband war. (Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)
MTN has echoed that sentiment, saying that while the key spectrum currently occupied by terrestrial broadcasters such as the SABC is necessary to grow the mobile ecosystem.
"I can say that it's [broadband spectrum] not necessarily having a significant impact but definitely, in due course, we will start having significant implications - not just from an LTE rollout point of view, but all other mobile services," said Sifiso Dabengwa MTN Group president and CEO.
Watch this video where Anne Bouverot, director general of the GSMA explains why LTE take up is slow:
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