Slow mobile speeds on the cards for South Africans as ICASA takes back spectrum

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In a move that is bound to have profound effects on South African mobile broadband users, the country’s Council of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA the equivalent of POTRAZ) has announced that they will be taking back the temporary radio frequency they had given to mobile operators at the end of November this year.

…the Authority is mindful of the need to focus its efforts on the permanent licensing of spectrum.

The Authority’s interventions with regards to the release of the temporary radio frequency spectrum have indeed contributed immensely to the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and to ensuring that South Africans were, and continue to be, able to communicate during these unprecedented times.

However, the Authority cannot allow the temporary spectrum assignment to assume a state of permanence

ICASA’s statement on the issue

The importance of spectrum and how temporary spectrum improved things

I didn’t know much about spectrums until last year when the government introduced their tough lockdown at the end of March. My ZOL Wibroniks slowed down to a crawl and I could not figure out the problem. My CPE hadn’t moved and nothing much had changed. It turns out the spectrum that ZOL had been allocated before the lockdown had suddenly become saturated by people now working from home.

Think of spectrum as a channel. The way LTE/Wireless internet works is that only a certain number of people can be accommodated on a given channel. The more put on a given spectrum, the more congested the spectrum is until the internet is so slow even you will notice.

The spectrum or bands available are physically limited by the laws of physics. Various internet providers and indeed other services compete and bid for these bands. Some bands are also reserved for other uses. In order to ease congestion POTRAZ and in South Africa ICASA were kind enough to temporarily give some unused bands to wireless internet providers. Personally, for me the impact was instant. ZOL quickly utilised this band and my internet speed improved.

Less bands are likely to cause issues

South African operators have indeed put that temporary spectrum to good use but now things are about to take a turn for the worst. ICASA has given them only three months to give up this free resource they have been profiting from and assess the likely effect this change will have on their services.

While we are now used to lockdowns, South Africans, like us have come to rely more on the internet and again just like us most South Africans are on mobile internet. One criticism levelled by my colleague has been that it seems despite getting free spectrum, bundles in Zimbabwe and elsewhere did not become cheaper.

It’s just that parity in terms of speeds was restored-although Econet and NetOne users still argue that their connections are slower compared to before the lockdown. The thing is without temporary spectrum allocations from POTRAZ things could even be slower. Just as they are about to get for South African mobile broadband users.

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