March 25, 2020 / 4:02 PM / 3 days ago

South African watchdog considers spectrum boost for telecoms companies

JOHANNESBURG, March 25 (Reuters) - South Africa is considering giving telecoms companies increased spectrum, or airwave capacity, as millions of people switch to home working, testing networks and driving up data traffic, the communications minister said on Wednesday.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a 21-day national lockdown from midnight on Thursday in an address on Monday, saying Africa’s most advanced economy needed to escalate its response to the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected 709 people in the country.

The telecoms industry, which is regulated by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), has experienced a spike in network data traffic in recent days after thousands of schools and universities were forced to shut down.

Telkom told Reuters that it is seeing increases of 15% to 30% in data consumption across mobile and fixed connectivity, while MTN Group said it was too early to quantify the surge in data traffic.

MTN, Telkom and Vodacom are already providing free access to health sites and e-school platforms to support home learning and teaching, while MTN has waived fees on mobile money transactions in certain markets.

While South African telecoms operators say their networks have been able to cope so far, there are fears of congestion as more people work from home.

“One envisages a situation where there will be too much traffic on the network,” Minister of Communications Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams told journalists, adding that ICASA is considering providing temporary additional spectrum.

The minister said that telecoms companies will be required to return the spectrum once the situation normalises.

“ICASA is currently engaging with sector licensees on possible ways of (providing) radio frequency spectrum relief for the duration of the declared state of disaster,” ICASA spokesman Paseka Maleka confirmed in an email.

“This is mainly to ease congestion, ensure good quality of broadband services and to enable licensees to lower cost of access to consumers (particularly in relation to education, emergency and other social services).”

Vodacom told Reuters that it will be engaging ICASA to “gain access to spectrum on a temporary basis.”

“Vodacom has also taken a decision to significantly ramp up investment spend in the short term to help manage network congestion,” group spokesman Byron Kennedy said in an email. (Reporting by Nqobile Dludla Editing by David Goodman)

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