Designing the digital dividend: Africa earmarks 700MHz band
September was a busy month for the telecommunications industry in Africa, bookended as it was by two major conferences focusing on future spectrum allocation and ICT development opportunities in the region.
The month opened with a meeting of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the African Telecommunications Union (ATU), hosted by the Communications Commission of Kenya, which attracted 124 participants from 35 Member States. The outcome saw Africa become the first region in the world to be in a position in 2015 to cohesively and harmoniously allocate bandwidth freed up by the transition to digital television—the so-called ‘digital dividend’—to mobile services in both the 700MHz and 800MHz bands.
The decision was something of a landmark move, given that the final details for digital dividend spectrum allocation won’t be hammered out until the World Radiocommunication Conference in 2015 (WRC-15) and regional allocation of 800MHz and 700MHz spectrum to date has been fragmented and inconsistent.
Nevertheless, frequency coordination negotiations at the meeting succeeded in setting up the mechanism to deploy digital television in 47 Sub-Saharan African countries.
The consolidation of national plans to implement the digital switchover in the African region conforms with the regulations originally set out in 2006 at the ITU’s Regional Radiocommunication Conference (RRC-06). The plan abides by switchover deadlines of June 2015 (for UHF) and June 2020 (for VHF in 33 countries), yet those involved acknowledge that some technical refinements will still need to be made immediately after WRC-15.
Over the last several years, digital dividend spectrum in the 700MHz and 800MHz bands has been made available around the world through the transition to digital TV, as frequencies previously used for UHF television broadcasts were re-farmed and re-auctioned. And while much of the world has moved ahead with 800MHz reallocation, 700MHz plans are still waiting to be finalised. In recent times there have been high hopes for the harmonisation of the 700MHz band on an international roaming level for LTE, with plans afoot to make use of the same 700MHz spectrum in the US, Asia Pacific and Europe because 700MHz is the third most widely used band for LTE deployments after 2.6GHz and 1800MHz (currently the clear leader).
But as regional plans have developed and the local demarcation of frequencies in the 600MHz to 800MHz range have been established, it’s become clear that any hopes of using 700MHz for roaming internationally have already been scuppered by regional fragmentation and disjointed strategies.
The USA has effectively taken itself out of the global picture entirely. As the first region to move on the 700MHz frequency (actually consisting of spectrum in the 698 to 806MHz bands) for cellular networking it carved its own path in terms of frequency demarcation before global agreements could be reached.
Meanwhile, subsequent in-fighting and lobbying among some of the country’s larger operators has resulted in proprietary allocation of digital dividend spectrum that is incompatible with the rest of the world.
For Region 1, incorporating Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Africa, a decision at WRC-12 created the possibility to allocate the 694–790MHz frequency band (the European/Region 1 ‘700MHz’ band) after WRC-15 in 2015 for mobile service. And despite the agreement not yet being set in stone, adoption is going ahead early in Africa because it has proved difficult in this region to free up the 800MHz band that is already widely used for cellular services in Europe. Whereas most of the world has already gone ahead with analogue television switch off in order to release digital dividend spectrum, Africa has not, so come 2015 the region will be implementing two sets of spectrum proposals (700MHz and 800MHz), one of which has already been put in place elsewhere in the world.
But in a slight twist to the WRC proposals, industry body the GSM Association, in partnership with the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA), has been lobbying for Europe, the Middle East and Africa to adopt an alternative 2x30MHz band plan for the 700MHz band, consisting of 703–733MHz (uplink) paired with 758–788MHz (downlink). This band plan is based on re-use of the lower duplexer of the APT band plan (2x30MHz from the APT 2x45MHz) and is intended to promote greater interoperability. It’s largely compatible with the APT700 band plan adopted in Asia Pacific, which is why Australian carrier Telstra has been picked to spearhead a major promotion of the APT700 spectrum band for LTE networks in Region 1.
The Asia Pacific implementation of the digital dividend frequency has already been identified for use in markets covering more than two billion people and the industry bodies are pushing for global adoption in order to facilitate LTE roaming.
Because the propagation characteristics of 700MHz are ideal for rural coverage as well as indoor urban penetration, it’s particularly attractive in terms of business case for broadscale deployment of LTE service coverage, especially in remote and rural regions like Africa.
The proposal paves the way for what the GSMA calls “a virtually global band with the APT band plan,” which “will offer the greatest benefit for consumers and mobile operators.” In its plan, the GSMA recommends that the regulatory and technical conditions for the 700MHz band in EMEA be harmonised with the Asia Pacific band plan, “maximising economies of scale in device manufacturing and enabling interoperability and roaming.”
This point is absolutely essential, according to Wladimir Bocquet, senior director of Spectrum Policy » at the GSMA. “We learned from past experience that harmonisation doesn’t just mean the same spectrum allocations and band plan but also requires the same technical and regulatory conditions and this is very important,” he says.
“If you have two identical band plans but the technical and regulatory conditions are different, then you lose some or all of the ability to harmonise with other countries and regions. So we are working hard with all stakeholders to harmonise with the APT band plan not just on spectrum but also on regulatory and technical conditions,” he said.
According to Bocquet, the industry only learned this recently. Indeed, widescale separation of operating licenses from spectrum licenses has only been adopted in the past several years and if you look back ten or 15 years, harmonisation was effectively limited to using the same frequency range. “Then we learned that we needed technical and regulatory harmony in order to make it possible to maintain harmony in device implementations,” says Bocquet. “This is where we are now working hard because although the frequency bands are largely accepted we still need to work out the technical and regulatory conditions.“
But the GSMA/GSA spectrum allocation proposal does rather differ to what has been proposed at the WRC. On the flip side, as well as less cross-border interference and, more options for roaming, the GSMA plan would drive availability of a wider portfolio of devices, driven by a larger, international market, as device manufacturers can mass-produce less-complex devices that function in multiple countries on a single band.
“What’s nice about this plan is that it’s a little bit wider than the last digital dividend for the 800MHZ band, which only had 2x30MHz, so possibly depending on the guard bands used you might get 2x40MHz out of that 700MHz allocation,” says Stefan Zehle, CEO of spectrum specialist Coleago Consulting. “The benefit is being able to give four operators 2x10MHz each or have a slightly wider allocation. It’s good for competition in markets where there are more than three operators, which makes it important in Africa but also it’s in the lower band, which is good for coverage of areas with a lower population density, while still providing capacity in suburban areas because the allocation is quite chunky.” Essentially, it gives the benefit of a cheap build out of geographic coverage and better in building penetration, which is key to the mobile broadband market.
But does that mean harmony in terms of interoperability and roaming facilitation is ensured throughout the region? The answer, unfortunately, is probably not.
“If you look at the whole sub-1GHz band, all the spectrum here is key from this perspective – 700, 800 and 900MHz are all essential for mobile broadband,” says Bocquet. “Although having a mix of bands across the different regions does not help the ecosystem or reduce costs from the consumer perspective on a global scale, you do have to make sure all devices in a region follow maximum commonality in order to make sure cost is as low as possible.”
Bocquet says the USA is a good case in point here. Although its spectrum strategy is largely at odds with the rest of the world, it is a large and mature enough market that the strategy affords economies of scale for device manufacturers and sufficient interoperability and roaming conditions for operators. “We have something like 44 bands to cater for, which is enormous compared to the physical possibilities of implementation in device,” Bocquet says.
Wilgon Berthold Tsibo, CTO of Equateur Telecom in the Republic of Congo, argues that the establishment of a 700MHz band plan is a good idea for Africa because it will help to solve the problem of explosion of data services that are on the horizon. “The emergence of an LTE frequency plan dedicated to data services will be a major asset in the development of the service, and also in the management of interference that may exist in existing bands with multiple operators and data access providers,” he says.
Nevertheless, he concedes that 700MHz alone will not be a solution for mobile broadband going forward and he is still looking to expand his company’s 1800MHz portfolio. The company owns licenses for 900 and 1800MHz frequencies but “going forward, in order to migrate to LTE, we need to increase our spectrum in 1800 frequencies,” he says.
Indeed, while many African carriers are keen to get their hands on digital dividend spectrum, they only see it as part of the solution for regional coverage. Dov Bar-Gera, CEO of YooMee Africa (previously known as 4G Africa), is one of those. “There are too many investments in other frequencies like 2.3GHz and 2.5GHz, so no, the 700MHz digital dividend in Africa will not help achieve global spectrum harmony,” he says.
YooMee Africa is one of those companies with extensive investments in the 2.3GHz and 2.5GHz bands. The carrier, which focuses on delivering wireless data services, started its operations in Cameroon and is in the process of expanding to Ivory Coast and additional sub-Saharan countries. Despite the fact that YooMee will participate in any forthcoming auctions for 700MHz spectrum, Bar-Gera expects that “wifi will have a large part to play in connecting Africa, alongside extensive use of white space spectrum.”
The first such wireless broadband trials using TV white spaces in the region took place in South Africa and Kenya in the first quarter of this year. In one pilot, US white space specialist Carlson Wireless teamed up with Google to launch a test case focusing on offering wireless connectivity to ten schools across the Cape Town area in an attempt to show that broadband can be offered over white spaces without interfering with licensed spectrum holders.
To prevent interference with other channels, the network uses Google’s spectrum database to determine white space availability, while the hardware—Carlson’s RuralConnect Broadband Solution, featuring the Neul Horizon software—provides the communications backbone for the trial.
The other major initiative was introduced as part of the 4Afrika program, which saw Microsoft, somewhat unusually, getting involved in an infrastructure project. The company helped establish a trial wireless broadband network in Kenya’s Rift Valley using white space spectrum and solar power to bring internet connectivity to people living in remote, rural areas.
Microsoft is working alongside the Kenyan government and local ISP Indigo on the Rift Valley broadband project and Google has had an interest in white spaces since around 2009. For both companies, rolling out wireless broadband technology into the unoccupied radio waves used as buffers between TV channels could enhance broadband access in rural areas. Compared with cellular, Bluetooth and wifi, white space devices use lower frequencies that have greater reach and in-building penetration.
But regulators have acknowledged that white space proponents must first prove that devices can operate without interfering with TV broadcasts and other wireless technologies that share these frequencies. The most likely solution to this problem seems to be that adopted in the US already – a requirement that such devices include geolocation capabilities and provisions to access an internet database of the incumbent services, allowing for the white space device to be told what spectrum may be used at that location. This is something that the GSMA’s Bocquet expects to remain problematic in Africa for some time, because the transition from analogue to digital is not done in one simple switchover. “So you will have a period of time when you have both analogue and digital services operating alongside one another. This makes collaboration across the region and between countries more important because another difficulty is cross border interference. Radio waves don’t stop at the geographical border, so you must consider what happens when you have too many spectrum variations in a region.”
But in terms of regional harmonisation it is interesting that some of the local spectrum licensees don’t see roaming as an important consideration. Given the intense competition in many African mobile markets, especially for voice services, lots of new entrants are focusing exclusively on data services.
“Right now roaming is not important and we don’t see any need for international collaboration to make it so,” says YooMee’s Bar-Gera. “We’re not interested in (traditional) voice because it’s too competitive in most markets and you have intense usage of Skype,” he says.
Earlier this year Skype claimed it was transporting over one third of all global telephone traffic. This amounts to over two billion minutes per day on a year on year growth curve of five per cent. There is no regional breakdown of statistics but Bar-Gera said he believes Skype accounts for 55 to 58 per cent of international voice traffic in and out of the region.
Not all stakeholders share Bar-Gera’s lack of concern for regional spectral harmony, in fact the GSMA’s Bocquet says that, after WRC-12: “We are quite surprised at how much Africa has succeeded with going ahead on adopting a plan. Especially since it is a region with 47 countries, that requires some good organisation,” he says. “Overall, it’s a very strong statement that the African countries can make their own achievements with a clear and transparent framework for investment. And we see that all the conditions have been set up to get priority and appropriate conditions for mobile broadband.”
This may well be because regional investment in ICT goes well beyond simple communication and wireless services are an essential catalyst. The African region has experienced remarkable growth in mobile networks and services development since 2008, allowing an increasing number of the almost 850 million people in the region to get connected and join the information society. Within five years, the region’s mobile penetration rate has doubled from 32 to 64 per cent, according to the ITU, and active mobile broadband penetration, which was practically non-existent in 2008, has grown to almost 11 per cent, stimulating ICT uptake.
Towards the end of September the Regional Preparatory Meeting for Africa, ahead of ITU’s World Telecommunication Development Conference 2014, opened in Ghana to identify priority areas for ICT development strategies in the African region, examining innovative ways and initiatives to bring broadband applications and services to users, especially in the areas of governance, healthcare, commerce, agriculture and education.
“Credit goes to governments for their political will, to the private sector for investing in the ICT sector, and to the citizens for a high uptake of these new technologies,” said Brahima Sanou, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, at the opening of the conference. “More than 20 per cent of the population in Africa consists of young people within the 15-24 age range—as compared to 12.4 per cent in Europe. As the future is in the hands of the youth, the prospects for Africa are very good.”
Indeed they are. 2015 will be a key turning point for the region in terms of finalising an appropriate spectrum solution to unlock opportunities afforded by the digital dividend bands and many African nations will be ready to switchover to digital within two or three years from now. In the meantime there are innovative stepping stone solutions making an appearance to bridge the gap between early generation wireless and LTE. These include the white spaces trials and Somcable’s efforts to bring ‘fibre-through-the-air’ (FTTA) to Somaliland, using Bluwan’s technology for the last mile of connectivity, providing download speeds of up to 100Mbps in the 700MHz band, in some cases for less than $10 monthly ARPU.
There are also more high capacity cables landing in Africa. Equateur Telecom recently joined the WACS consortium and brought fibre to the Republic of Congo, yet in mostly remote an rural regions with little established infrastructure, completing the last mile, or last few miles, is the prevalent problem. To this end Africa has seen many opportunists pop up in its market with data only solutions and we go into greater detail on this on page 08, but there is also a surprising level of international organisation with a view to harmonising spectrum in the region and increasing interoperability with the rest of the world.
For a region that was for a long time lagging behind in terms of spectrum governance, Africa is now leading the way, putting into play forward thinking strategies that it can share with the rest of the industry at WRC-15.