South African Regulator Delays $1 Billion Spectrum Auction

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South Africa’s telecommunications regulator has postponed an auction of more than $1 billion of high-speed broadband spectrum to May in the face of fierce government opposition.

The sale process has been moved from January, according to a revised plan by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa. The regulator has also eased requirements for black ownership of bidding companies, intended to help those discriminated against during apartheid. Icasa plans to refund winners of the auction if the sale then has to be canceled following legal action planned by the government.

The telecommunications ministry is against the sale, arguing that South Africa’s biggest phone companies, including MTN Group Ltd. and Vodacom Group Ltd., will benefit at the expense of smaller competitors. A case to prevent the planned auction will be heard in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria starting on Tuesday.

Icasa said in July it plans to sell five blocks of spectrum starting at 3 billion rand ($220 million) each to help extend internet access across Africa’s most industrialized economy. The government wants the plan to be scrapped in favor of a system where telecommunications infrastructure is shared equally among market participants.

South Africa’s largest wireless operators have been clamoring for more spectrum to expand broadband for the past five years as stiff competition and tight regulation hampers growth in phone services. The governing African National Congress has pledged to extend broadband access to every household by the end of this decade.