MTN Group reportedly threatened legal action against South Africa’s telecoms regulator over rules set for an upcoming spectrum auction, opposing a plan to allow small operators first dibs on certain frequencies.

South African technology website MyBroadband reported it had viewed a letter from MTN lawyers contesting the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa’s (ICASA) proposal to exclude network operators from initially bidding on lots of spectrum based on their market share.

Dubbed the “opt-in” scheme, ICASA will use a criteria to ensure smaller operators are able to access spectrum before larger rivals.

For example, national operators with a retail market share of more than 45 per cent in more than ten municipalities are unable to bid on certain spectrum in the first round.

MTN argued the scheme could mean tier-two operators (those with less than a market share of 45 per cent in fewer than ten municipalities) snap up all of the 3500MHz spectrum made available.

The operator said it requires 3500MHz to roll out 5G in the country.

“The opt-in scheme deliberately sterilises the two tier-one operators from bidding for the spectrum they need to advance 5G network rollout”.

MTN further argued ICASA was undermining its own auction as the country’s largest operators, and therefore those with the most cash, would be unable to bid on certain spectrum.

“The exclusion of tier-one operators from the opt-in round means that ICASA is unable to make a proper assessment of what the market as a whole is willing to pay for the spectrum,” MTN added.

ICASA revealed this week six companies had applied to take part in the auction, which is expected to begin by the end of March.

Along with 3500MHz, the sale will also include various allocations across the 700MHz, 800MHz and 2600MHz bands.