Why is it so expensive to communicate in South Africa? Blame something called ‘spectrum’

The lack of spectrum is the cause of high data costs in South Africa.
The lack of spectrum is the cause of high data costs in South Africa.
Image: ©Milan_Jovic/Istock.com

Supply and demand of “spectrum” is behind the high costs of communicating in South Africa.

According to the GSM Association (GSMA)‚ spectrum relates to the radio frequencies allocated to the mobile industry and other sectors for communication over the airwaves.

Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) councillor Paris Mashile told SowetanLIVE at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) World Telecom 2018 conference on Tuesday that the limited supply of radio frequency spectrum had pushed up prices.

"If you look at other countries like Nigeria and Tanzania‚ where spectrum has been released‚ it is copious and‚ therefore‚ because of huge supply‚ the price comes down. But as you know‚ in South Africa we have had challenges. People can argue that the cost in those countries are cheaper but that is because those people have released it‚ so prices are down‚" he said.

For years‚ network operators in South Africa have said that the lack of spectrum has hindered its ability to roll out services and reduce the cost to communicate. The hold on releasing spectrum is largely due to ICASA and government disagreeing on the methods to allocate it.

But there is some hope of a resolution.

At the opening ceremony of the United Nations agency's flagship event in Durban on Monday‚ President Cyril Ramaphosa told more than 2‚000 delegates from over 91 countries that the government had recently decided to accelerate the licensing of the spectrum in the 2.6Ghz‚ 700Mhz and 800Mhz bands. This to hasten the growth of mobile communications.

Meanwhile‚ a report released at the conference suggested that when network operators paid high prices for spectrum‚ consumers paid more for mobile services.

According to the report by GSMA Intelligence‚ between 2010 and 2017‚ the final spectrum prices in developing countries were‚ on average‚ more than three times those in developed countries once differences in incomes were taken into account. South Africa was not included in the research.