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Spectrum shortage is killing African digital ambitions

Telcos complaining about government regulation and policies is not unique to the African continent, though they never seem to get along here.

Through the years there have always been complaints from the telcos at AfricaCom. Whether it is import tax making devices unaffordable or policies which don’t attract international investment, the bureaucrats constantly seem to be on the backfoot. This year’s event saw a global pain-point hit the keynote conference agenda; spectrum availability.

This is of course a gripe of almost every telco around the world; there isn’t enough spectrum available to deliver the digital economy which politicians have promised voters. However, when you breakdown the numbers, there are some valid concerns. Looking at the South African landscape demonstrates the point.

  Telco holding
Spectrum band Vodacom MTN Cell C Telkom Rain
900 MHz 22 MHz 22 MHz 22 MHz
1800 MHz 24 MHz 24 MHz 24 MHz 24 MHz 34 MHz
2100 MHz 30 MHz 30 MHz 30 MHz 30 MHz
2300 MHz 68 MHz
2600 MHz 15 MHz
3500 MHz 28 MHz 142 MHz
Total 76 MHz 76 MHz 76 MHz 150 MHz 191 MHz

Speaking during the keynote sessions, MTN CEO Rob Shuter highlighted the South African Government is demanding more from the telcos, without offering more of this valuable asset to deliver. The MTN business has been working with the same spectrum allocation for decades, a situation which cannot continue. More spectrum is needed.

This is one example, though the story is pretty consistent across the continent. The issue is apparent when you compare it to the UK.

  Telco holding
Spectrum band EE Vodafone Three O2
800 MHz 10 MHz 20 MHz 10 MHz 20 MHz
900 MHz 34.8 MHz 34.8 MHz
1500 MHz 20 MHz 20 MHz
1800 MHz 90 MHz 11.6 MHz 30 MHz 11.6 MHz
1900 MHz 10 MHz   5.4 MHz 5 MHz
2100 MHz 40 MHz 29.6 MHz 29.2 MHz 20 MHz
2300 MHz 40 MHz
2600 MHz 70 MHz 45 MHz 55 MHz
3500 MHz 40 MHz 50 MHz 60 MHz 40 MHz
3700 MHz 80 MHz
Total 260 MHz 211 MHz 289.6 MHz 171.4 MHz

Not only is there more spectrum available, it is broadly spread across a range of spectrum bands to address different usecases and challenges. Soon enough another spectrum auction will take place in the 700 MHz and 3600-3800 MHz spectrum bands.

This is of course a very simplistic way to look at the landscape. South Africa is a very unique country, and spectrum is allocated with conditions, such as minority ownership of the telco. There is an on-going conflict between the major telcos and the government regarding the obligations placed on spectrum allocation, but the end result is still the same; a scarcity of an incredibly valuable resource.

There is perhaps a glimmer of hope however. In recent weeks, the government published an ‘Information Memorandum’ outlining plans for additional spectrum to bolster 4G connectivity and pave way for 5G in the future, though attendees at AfricaCom are not exactly enthralled by the situation. For some, this is just more talk in place of action. Confidence in the governments ability to sort out this mess in a timely manner is not particularly high.

This sceptical view is perhaps supported by the 800 MHz spectrum band. Currently being used by broadcasters, there have been promises to clean the airwaves for use in the mobile world, though little of this promise has translated into assistance for the telcos. The frustration continues.

South Africa seems to have an ‘us versus them’ situation currently. Governments and telcos are rarely best of friends elsewhere, but there is a collaborative environment to ensure an effective connectivity landscape. The Shared Rural Network proposal in the UK is an excellent example of bringing together various different parties with compromises being made to achieve a common goal. This collaborative environment does not seem to exist in South Africa.

If South Africa, and African nations in general, are to compete with other regions in the digital economy, or drive digital inclusion across society, the spectrum conundrum needs to be addressed. But looking at the bigger picture, telcos and governments need to reduce the friction and create a more collaborative environment. These are not parties who are ever likely to be the best of friends, but they should at least be able to tolerate each other in the pursuit of a common objective.

  • West Africa Com


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