Spectrum may be released during lockdown - communications minister

Minister of Communications Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams told reporters on Wednesday that her department would introduce measures to protect small businesses in the information communications technology sector amid the coronavirus update.

This would also be done with a view to combating the spread of fake news, she said. 

The measures will include a moratorium on fees for community broadcasters, funds to support small, micro and medium enterprises in the ICT sector, and the temporary provision of spectrum for the lockdown period.

Ndabeni-Abrahams was speaking at an inter-ministerial briefing aimed at unpacking government’s interventions in light of the coronavirus outbreak in South Africa, as well as the Friday national lockdown that President Cyril Ramaphosa declared on Monday evening.

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Ndabeni-Abrahams discussed several communication-related issues her department would be tackling.

Among other things, the coronavirus outbreak has brought to bear the propensity of false reports or "fake news" to spread in an environment of panic, she said.

Ndabeni-Abrahams said a host of mechanisms would be introduced to ensure that communication lines remained reliable during lockdown. South Africans would need access to accurate and reliable information on the coronavirus during the 21-day lockdown period, which begins at midnight on Thursday, she explained. 

She said the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) would consider releasing temporary spectrum relief to those that must provide communications services during the lockdown period.

"As they provide that relief, it must be done according to the law and we must keep track of the infrastructure that will be rolled out so that by the time we get out of this dilemma the spectrum will be rolled back or the regulator will determine what happens with the temporary spectrum," said Ndabeni-Abrahams.

She told journalists that following engagements with signal distributor Sentech, that vulnerable community broadcasters would be exempt from paying fees to the regulators for the next three months to protect them from the impact of the lockdown.

"We have decided through Sentech that in order to minimise the impact to community media, we will extend grace to say that we will not charge them for signal distribution. So as much as they would have lost money from the events they booked for, they will be exempt from payment for 90 days," she said.

Ndabeni-Abrahams said a sum of R100 million would be provided for small, micro and medium enterprises in the ICT sector that will facilitate digital support to education, health and local government services for South Africans.

She said she was encourage by the commitments government received from media houses to ensure the dissemination of accurate information during the lockdown to combat "fake news" which circulates on social media platforms.