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South Africa’s telcos clash over controversial spectrum pooling

A fierce battle is brewing in South Africa’s telecom industry over spectrum pooling, where multiple users share a single allocation of radio spectrum space. Vodacom challenges MTN, Cell C, and Liquid Intelligent Technologies over allegedly secret and illegal spectrum pooling deals.

Vodacom claims that MTN and its partners, with ICASA’s collaboration, have been unlawfully pooling high-demand spectrum (HDS) in the 900MHz, 1800MHz, and 2100MHz bands without proper licensing. Vodacom argues it gives MTN an unfair competitive advantage. The case is set to be heard in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria on August 13.

Vodacom’s affidavit accuses ICASA of violating the Electronic Communications Act (ECA) by enabling this pooling, skewing the competitive landscape. MTN, Cell C, and Liquid deny any wrongdoing and have opposed Vodacom’s request for an urgent interdict to halt their pooling arrangements. ICASA has stated that it is defending the matter in court.

Telkom, maintaining neutrality, emphasizes the need for a fair and competitive environment. Nozipho Mngomezulu, Telkom’s Group Executive for Regulatory and Legal Affairs, asserts that while spectrum pooling isn’t illegal, it must be regulated to prevent anti-competitive practices. Telkom calls for thoroughly scrutinizing all HDS arrangements to ensure they don’t unfairly advantage larger operators over smaller rivals.

According to Mngomezulu, larger operators have long engaged in spectrum arrangements with smaller licensees, particularly concerning HDS. Telkom insists that ICASA investigate these arrangements thoroughly, as they potentially grant larger operators indirect access to critical spectrum resources, distorting the competitive landscape.

MTN argues that spectrum pooling enhances competition and efficiency. The company states that it applied for pooling in early 2022, following the positive impact of temporary arrangements during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that these practices are standard in many markets. MTN claims it followed the ECA’s procedures and received ICASA’s approval.

Vodacom, however, alleges that MTN and its partners applied for pooling in secret for their commercial gain. MTN warns that granting Vodacom’s interdict would degrade its network’s quality, speed, and capacity, affecting its subscribers and other service providers reliant on its network. MTN believes Vodacom’s lack of substantial evidence should result in the dismissal of the interdict request.

As this legal battle unfolds, the outcome could significantly impact spectrum usage and competitive dynamics in South Africa’s telecom industry. Broadcast Media Africa

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