South Africa faces ‘digital load shedding’ in the next few months, CEO warns

On top of everything else, businesses must now worry about the prospect of a major cut in bandwidth for those who connect through cell phone networks, says BLSA chief executive Busi Mavuso.

Despite warnings of the damage to the economy and the fight against the pandemic, Icasa is pressing ahead with a plan to terminate access to the emergency spectrum at the end of November, she said.

In April 2020, Icasa released emergency spectrum to allow the country’s mobile operators to meet the spike in demand for broadband services due to South Africa’s coronavirus lockdown.

The spectrum was expected to ease network congestion, maintain the quality of broadband services, and enable network operators to lower the cost of access to consumers.

However, in a notice sent to operators at the start of September, the regulator said that the emergency spectrum will be taken back on 30 November 2021.

“This will make it harder for workers to connect from home, leaving businesses with a difficult choice – either force workers back into the office, put them on leave or make them redundant,” said Mavuso

“The move by Icasa has particularly hit the business process outsourcing sector, the one area of the economy that has managed to grow employment during the pandemic.”

Mavuso said that this sector relies on good broadband to connect workers for tasks like call centre operations.

“Efficient mobile broadband is particularly important for township sectors which do not have high fixed-line penetration and temporary workers who do not want the cost and long-term contracts of other forms of access.”

The decision has also damaged confidence in an increasingly important part of our economy in the call centre industry, said Mavuso.

“South Africa’s good English language skills and position relative to US, European and Asian time zones have enabled it to build a large business servicing global companies,” she said. “One example is Amazon, which last year hired 3,000 people for its operations in Cape Town to service its global business.”

“Given that there are still 700,000 fewer jobs than before the pandemic, the last thing we should be doing is damaging confidence in areas that have been creating jobs. Indeed, we should be doing everything possible to enable the economy to recover.”

While Icasa is an independent regulator, Mavuso said she was ‘astounded’ there hasn’t been a stronger outcry from the political level, especially given the approaching local government elections.

“The prospect of digital load shedding is surely one that voters will care about.”

Digital load shedding

Telecommunications company MTN has also warned that the Icasa’s decision to take back temporary radio frequency spectrum on 30 November could lead to ‘digital load shedding’ in South Africa.

MTN SA’s executive for corporate affairs, Jacqui O’Sullivan, told MyBroadband that the decision is a significant blow given the extra demands placed on its systems.

“Since the start of the pandemic, the amount of data traffic that MTN has needed to carry for its customers has more than doubled,” she said.

“Removing the temporary spectrum, when the pandemic remains a reality for all South Africans and before Icasa completes the spectrum auction, will have a significant impact on data supply to South Africans.”

The impact of the National State of Disaster has not eased since the last extension of the temporary spectrum, O’Sullivan said.

“In fact, since the last extension, South Africa was hit by a record-breaking third wave of infections and was moved to level 4 risk adjustment level which was only dropped to level 3 on 25 July 2021.”