MTN is finding it very challenging to provide 2G, 3G, and 4G services to customers, particularly in metropolitan areas, because of the time it takes to get permits to build new infrastructure. This is according to MTN South Africa’s chief technology officer, Eben Albertyn, who was speaking at a public hearing last week. The hearings were called by communications regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of SA’s (ICASA), to look at the state of competition in the ICT industry.
According to Albertyn, ongoing delays in the allocation of access to additional frequency spectrum is putting MTN and other operators in a precarious and extremely difficult position, where they are struggling to maintain the quality of service.
He said MTN has invested a huge amount of time and money to find ways of constructing new infrastructure, including base stations.
“We are in a [data] tsunami, at least us, and probably the other big operators. We are finding it difficult to comply with the quality-of-service requirements we have. We are really, really struggling.”
In order to address this demand for data, MTN must build new sites very fast quickly. It also needs access to additional spectrum.
Government has stalled for years in issuing a policy direction on access to high-demand spectrum in the 800MHz and 2,6GHz bands, both of which are well suited to delivering 4G mobile broadband networks based on long-term evolution technology.
Without access to new spectrum and with traffic growing the way it is, MTN will have to build 65 000 new towers a year by 2020 to keep up with consumer demand.
Echoing MTN’s concerns about a dearth of spectrum, Vodacom has told the regulator it does not care how the process is handled, it just needs more frequency.
Speaking at the same hearing last week, Andrew Barendse, managing executive for regulatory affairs at Vodacom, says the company is now at a stage where it does not care about the regulatory process, it just wants spectrum assigned. “We really just want to participate.”
ICASA councillor, Katharina Pillay, pointed out the regulator tried, in 2010, to license spectrum, but was hit with a backlash by operators arguing it was not following the correct procedure. The process was then placed on hold pending a policy directive from former minister of communications, Dina Pule, which has yet to be issued.
Barry Vlok, who consults to Vodacom on engineering issues, says, with 34 million subscribers, it is now facing “spectrum choking” as it has more users than can fit into the allocated spectrum, and no new spectrum has been issued in the past decade.
Vlok says over-fragmentation of spectrum must be avoided as, based on global trends, this leads to poor performance on the network.
Telkom has also indicated it needs more frequency.
Despite having more high-demand spectrum than any of its competitors, Telkom has appealed to the regulator to give it first pick at the spectrum that will be freed up with digital migration, arguing that its mobile arm is the only operator without access to sub-1GHz frequency.
Telkom regulatory executive, Siyabonga Mahlangu, said promotion of competition requires all operators to be on an equal footing and Telkom wants to be given first option on sub-1GHz spectrum, before the regulator auctions it off. “We don’t have anything below 1GHz [and] feel the board is skewed against us in terms of 700MHz and 800MHz spectrum. We want to be put on the same pedestal as everyone else.”
In response to this, ICASA councillor, William Stucke, pointed out Telkom has more high-demand spectrum in its possession than MTN, Vodacom and Neotel put together.
The 700MHz and 800MHz bands currently belong to terrestrial broadcasting entities. The aim is to have this spectrum freed up when SA finally moves off analogue television. This process, which is meant to be completed in line with the International Telecommunication Union’s mid-2015 deadline, has repeatedly stalled.