The Department of Communications has done a deal whereby disadvantaged South Africans will receive four million SIM cards over five years in exchange for the cellular industry gaining access to the 1800 MHZ frequency , writes Paul Vecciatto, ItWeb’s Cape Town Correspondent.

This came to light during the Department’s budget vote in Parliament last week. Communications Minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri said in the debate following her budget speech that the Telecommunications Act provided for the 1800MHz spectrum, as well as the 2.4GHz-3G spectrum, to be issued to existing cellphone operators, the second national operator and "underserviced area operators".

The deal effectively ensures that the SA cellphone industry will grow at a guaranteed rate of 30% over the next five years from the current 12 million subscribers. SA already has one of the world’s highest cellphone user densities.

As part of the deal, the industry will provide 250,000 free phones and numbers to public emergency services over five years, as well as providing Internet links to computers at schools, and public pay phones in accessible places in rural areas and multipurpose community centres.

"A key element in this process is the determination of access fees and universal service obligations for the allocation of the frequency spectrum," said Matsepe-Casaburri. She said the distribution of the SIM cards will help economically disadvantaged people to gain access to the country’s economic life-line and gain access to emergency services.

Criteria for those who qualify for a free SIM card will be based on the previous Telkom programme of installing fixed-lines for the economically disadvantaged.

Regarding the second national fixed-line operator, Matsepe-Casaburri told MPs in the Assembly that she expected the licence to be issued in the third quarter of this year, and "the new player ought to be in operation soon thereafter".