MTN's head office in Johannesburg. Photo: Getty Images
  • MTN has lodged an urgent legal bid to cast aside parts of the long-awaited spectrum auction.
  • For the first time in 15 years, mobile operators can bid to get more radio frequencies – which mean that they can expand 5G. It should also lower data prices in SA.
  • But MTN says that Icasa is shutting it, and Vodacom, out of a crucial round of the auction, which could mean that they end up without access to 5G spectrum.
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South Africa’s long-delayed, and crucial, spectrum auction now faces another legal hurdle as MTN filed a urgent court application challenging some parts of the process.

In December, Telkom also filed a legal challenge, as it contended that the way the auction is structured will benefit the biggest players like MTN and Vodacom, and that it had a “fundamental flaw” because it included frequency bands that are still used by TV broadcasters.

For the first time in more than fifteen years, South Africa is auctioning off high-demand radio frequency spectrum, which will allow local cellphone providers to improve their service and expand 5G.

Mobile operators have long blamed the lack of spectrum for South Africa's high data prices. 

In South Africa, spectrum is limited because television broadcasting is still hogging frequencies – because a move from the analogue TV system to digital terrestrial television has been delayed for half a decade.

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) has confirmed that Vodacom, Rain, Telkom, MTN, Liquid Telecom and Cell C all applied to take part in the auction, which is scheduled for 24 March 2021.

But in an urgent application to the Gauteng High Court, MTN now wants two parts of the auction process to be declared unlawful.

MTN is challenging Icasa’s decision to classify operators into two groups: Tier 1 and Tier 2. Only MTN and Vodacom are classed as Tier 1 operators. MTN is objecting to the approach Icasa took in classifying operators, which the company says is based on “an arbitrary number of municipalities, and incorrectly relies on retail market share”.

It is also objecting against the rule that Tier 1 operators are not allowed to participate in an initial “opt-in” round of the auction, which MTN says will include the highly sought-after 3500 MHz band, which is optimal for 5G use.

It is concerned that it won’t be able to bid for this band if Tier 2 operators take up the bulk of the spectrum in this initial auction. In its affidavit, MTN said that Icasa’s approach to both the tier classifications and the initial round of the auction is “impermissibly vague”. “It is impossible for prospective bidders to understand the basis for these interventions or to anticipate their outcome.”

Compiled by Helena Wasserman

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