Wednesday, January 19

Icasa’s emergency spectrum decision will hurt the economy: Busi Mavuso

On top of everything else, businesses now have to worry about the prospect of a major cut in bandwidth for those connecting over cell phone networks. Despite warnings about damage to the economy and fighting the pandemic, Icasa is pushing ahead with a plan to end access to emergency spectrum by the end of November.

This will make it more difficult for workers to connect from home, leaving companies with a difficult choice: force workers to return to the office, fire them, or fire them. The Icasa measure has particularly affected the business process outsourcing sector, the only area of ​​the economy that has managed to increase employment during the pandemic. It relies on good broadband to connect workers for tasks like call center operations. Efficient mobile broadband is particularly important for sectors of municipalities that do not have high penetration of fixed lines and temporary workers who do not want the cost and long-term contracts of other forms of access.


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The late November deadline is fast approaching, but we have received no comment from the government on the decision. The emergency spectrum was assigned in terms of national disaster regulations when the pandemic was raging last year. It was one of the most positive movements in the fight against the pandemic and included requirements to provide free educational platforms and materials so that students could continue their education from home. It has also been important in the vaccine effort that anyone can book vaccines through the Department of Health websites from their phones for free. All of that will go with the termination of the temporary licenses.

The decision has also damaged confidence in an increasingly important part of our economy: the call center industry. South Africa’s good English language skills and its position relative to the US, Europe and Asia time zones have enabled it to build a great business serving global companies. One example is Amazon, which last year hired 3,000 people for its Cape Town operations to service its global business.

Overall, business process outsourcing in South Africa employs 270,000 employees, but McKinsey estimates it could grow to 775,000 by 2030, with two-thirds of those serving foreign markets. That makes it a substantial source of export earnings. It has been growing at a compound rate of more than 24% for the last six years. But it relies heavily on connectivity, both with the rest of the world and at the national level, to connect workers to provide services. While workers can return to the offices, we remain in tight lockdown level 2 where employers must encourage workers to work from home.

Given that there are still 700,000 fewer jobs than before the pandemic, the last thing we should do is damage confidence in areas that have been creating jobs. In fact, we should do everything possible to make the economy recover.

Of course, what we really need is a long-term solution to the shortage of spectrum available in South Africa, a process that has been underway for more than a decade but remains clouded by litigation and policy sequencing issues. The emergency spectrum should remain in place until that process is resolved.

Icasa’s decision on the emergency spectrum may add to the litigation in which it is involved. Icasa is legally bound to consider the interests of the end users when making its decisions, but I cannot imagine any possible justification for this decision from the perspective of the end user. . It is more difficult for people to obtain information to fight the pandemic and it is difficult for them to work safely.

While Icasa is an independent regulator, I am also surprised that there has not been a stronger protest from the political level, especially given the upcoming local government elections. The prospect of reducing the digital burden is certainly one that will concern voters.

Busi Mavuso is Executive Director of Business Leadership South Africa.

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