A Look at Spectrum in Four African Countries

Does effective spectrum management make a real difference when it comes to more pervasive and affordable access to communication?  In this post I look at the spectrum management regimes in four African countries: Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, and South Africa, and try to draw some conclusions. One of the challenges in comparing access in these countries is simply recognising how different they are from each other.  Nigeria is three times more populous than South Africa but with a smaller land mass.  Senegal has roughly the same income per capita as Kenya but its wealth is more evenly distributed.  Its significantly smaller population and land mass have implications both for ease of coverage but also for the size of the telecommunications market.  All of these factors make it challenging to do head-to-head comparisons of telecom sectors, let alone spectrum management alone.  Things like population density, robustness of the electrical grid, crime levels, etc., all are factors in the cost of building and maintaining wireless networks.

General Country Statistics

Land Mass
(sq km)
South Africa11,2815163.11,219,912

But that hasn’t stopped anyone trying.  Below you can see some indicators that rank countries on ICTs.  Actually, the first, the World Bank’s Doing Business Report, is not ICT-specific but rather tries to capture the general ease of doing business in a given country.  Next we have the ITU’s Measuring the Information Society (MIS) report which ranks countries’ performance with regard to ICT infrastructure and uptake.  Then there is the Alliance for Affordable Internet Access (A4AI) Affordability Report which looks at affordability in the overall context of the regulatory and infrastructure environment.  And in the realm of specific indicators, we have the Ookla Net Index which directly measures broadband speeds across countries. Finally Research ICT Africa’s Fair Mobile index looks at prepaid mobile costs.

ICT Rankings

In all the rankings below a lower number indicates better with the exception of the NetIndex.
Doing Business

Research ICT

South Africa4184124.9212.06

So what can we interpret from the above?  Aggregate scores can be difficult to interpret and inevitably reflect the bias of the designers.  However across the Doing Business, MIS, and A4AI ranks, we can see South Africa as clearly the front-runner when it comes to the overall ICT and business environment.  What then accounts for the extremely high pre-paid costs?  Perhaps it is South Africa’s overall GDP per capita and the fact that the market will charge whatever it can.  Senegal comes out last of the four countries in all composite indexes and the prepaid costs are consistent with those rankings.  Curiously though Senegal appears to have the fastest broadband speed among the four.  Nigeria, with five undersea fibre optic cables landing on its shores,  more undersea cables than any other country in sub-Saharan Africa, still has the slowest broadband of the four countries according to the NetIndex.  Clearly broadband is struggling to make its way in from the coast. What we can interpret from the above is that there are many necessary but not sufficient conditions for competition to occur and even when all the necessary conditions exist, sometimes it take a moment of punctuated equilibrium to get things moving.

Spectrum Assignments

In the rest of this article, you’ll see detailed breakdowns on spectrum assignments in a number of the popular and emerging spectrum bands for mobile services.  You’ll see things like MTN  2 x 11 FDD.  This means that MTN has 22 MHz of spectrum broken up into two chunks.  FDD stands for Frequency Division Duplexing and it means that the uplink and downlink for the spectrum are on two different frequencies, typically at either end of the spectrum band.  Historically all mobile spectrum has been allocated this way.  This works best when there is relative symmetry in the upload and download traffic such as is found on voice networks.  It is less efficient for digital networks where there is a much bigger bias towards download than upload.

Historically digital communication technologies tend to use a single frequency for upload and download.  This approach is known as TDD or Time Division Duplexing, is expressed in the tables below in the form 1 x 10 TDD which refers to a single 10 MHz block.  Both TDD and FDD have their strengths and weaknesses and LTE represents the frontier of the debate on FDD vs TDD because manufacturers are producing LTE technologies for both FDD and TDD deployments.  My personal opinion is that the future is with TDD technologies, partly because they are better suited to digital usage but also because they make assigning individual blocks of spectrum less complex.  FDD is not going away soon though as existing spectrum assignments will be slow to change.  For more information on this, Huawei has an interesting paper on the potential for TDD LTE in Africa.

The first major blocks of spectrum to look at are the 900MHz and 1800MHz bands, the bread and butter of GSM networks in Africa and Europe.   900MHz is great for rural networks because of its greater propagation characteristics than 1800MHz while 1800MHz is great for urban deployments because there is more capacity for densely populated areas.  You will note that countries make different choices about what size of spectrum to assign an individual operator.  In the 900MHz band, most regulators chose to assign spectrum in roughly 10 MHz chunks but the Nigerian regulator chose to assign spectrum in 5MHz chunks.  What is the impact of this?  Obviously it allows the regulator to open up the field to more competition as we can see five mobile operators with mobile spectrum in Nigeria as opposed to typically three in other countries.  The downside to this approach is the capacity that is afforded each operator.  The amount of spectrum assigned to each operator has a direct impact on the number of users that can be supported at full capacity on a given cell.

Of course that is not the only factor.  Backhaul capacity also is a significant factor.  For rural deployments 5MHz may be sufficient but it is likely to be problematic for densely populated urban areas. There is a general assumption that all of the GSM spectrum in Africa has been assigned and is in use but a look at the 1800 MHz table reveals that both Senegal and Kenya have a substantial amount of spectrum in the 1800 MHz band that is unassigned.  As 1800 MHz transitions to more LTE use, perhaps that represent an opportunity or at least presents some flexibility in re-farming the band.  As we have seen, 1800 MHz is currently the most popular choice for LTE deployments in Africa.

900 MHz

Spectrum range: 880-960MHz (80MHz)
South Africa
Total:66 MHzTotal:70 MHzTotal:50 MHzTotal:68.4 MHz
MTN2 x 11 FDDSafaricom2 x10 FDDEtilisat2 x 5 FDDOrange (Sonatel)2 x 12,4 FDD
Vodacom2 x 11 FDDCeltel (Airtel)2 x10 FDDGlo2 x 5 FDDTigo (Sentel)2 x 10 FDD
Cell C2 x 11 FDDTelkom Kenya2 x 7.5 FDDMtel2 x 5 FDDExpresso (Sudatel)2 x 12 FDD
Essar (yuMobile)2 x 7.5 FDDMTN2 x 5 FDD
Zain (Airtel)2 x 5 FDD

1800 MHz

Spectrum range: 1710–1785 and 1805–1880 MHz (150 MHz)
South Africa
Total:154 MHzTotal:80 MHzTotal:150 MHzTotal:82 MHz
MTN2 x 12 FDDSafaricom2 x 10 FDDEtilisat2 x 15 FDDOrange (Sonatel)2 x 16 FDD
Vodacom2 x 12 FDDCeltel (Airtel)2 x 10 FDDGlo2 x 15 FDDTigo (Sentel)2 x 09 FDD
Cell C2 x 12 FDDTelkom Kenya2 x 10 FDDMtel2 x 15 FDDExpresso (Sudatel)2 x 16 FDD
Neotel2 x 12 FDDEssar (yuMobile)2 x 10 FDDMTN2 x 15 FDD
Telkom2 x 12 FDDZain (Airtel)2 x 15 FDD
WBS2 x 12 FDD
WBS1 x 10 TDD

Next, in the table below, is the 2100 MHz band or what is typically know as 3G spectrum.  Once again, Kenya and Senegal appear to have roughly 50% of the spectrum still unassigned.  I was unable to obtain data on Nigeria in spite of the regulator’s excellent information on other bands.  Can we draw any conclusions so far on the impact of spectrum occupancy?  Not a lot at the moment.  Kenya leads in cost of mobile access and Senegal lags.  Would things be different if they had assigned more spectrum?  It seems likely that there are other more significant factors at play.

2100 MHz

Spectrum range: 1920-1980 and 2110–2170 MHz (120 MHz)
South Africa
Total:125?Total:60Total:Total:70 MhHz
Vodacom2 x 15 FDDSafaricom2 x 10 FDDGlo?Orange (Sonatel)2 x 15 FDD
Vodacom1 x 5 TDDCeltel (Airtel)2 x 10 FDDMTN?Tigo (Sentel)2 x 10 FDD
MTN2 x 15 FDDTelkom Kenya2 x 10 FDDAirtel?Expresso (Sudatel)2 x 15 FDD
MTN1 x 5 TDDExpresso (Sudatel)1 x 5 TDD
Cell C2 x 15 FDD
Cell C1 x 5 TDD
Telkom2 x 10 FDD
Spare2 x 10 FDD

The 800 MHz band has typically been used for CDMA2000 networks in Africa.  Once a big contender to GSM as a standard for mobile networks, GSM has largely won out in spite of not being as efficient a technology as CDMA.  While many CDMA2000 network operators have incurred losses, the emergence of the 800 MHz band for LTE may offer them new possibilities.  However, the organisation of the band for LTE is different and it is likely that it will take years for the re-farming of this spectrum to take place.  One exception to this is Smile Telecom who have a 15 MHz TDD license in Nigeria.  This has allowed them to launch an LTE data network focused on Internet users.   Having a relatively large chunk of spectrum in the sub-1GHz range for LTE arguably puts Smile in a very attractive positive.  The question remains how fast regulators will be able to make this spectrum band available.


South Africa
Total:10 MHzTotal:10 MHzTotal:45 MHzTotal:12.5 MHz
Neotel2 x 5 FDDTelkom Kenya2 x 5 FDDSmile1 x 15 TDDExpresso (Sudatel)2 x 6,25 FDD
GiCell Wireless2 x 3.75 FDD
TC Africa Telecoms Network2 x 3.75 FDD
Multilinks2 x 3.75 FDD
Visafone Communications2 x 3.75 FDD

Moving on to what are green pastures for mobile operators, the 2300 MHz band has recently risen to prominence.  In South Africa, the incumbent Telkom have been able to take advantage of an existing spectrum assignment in the 2300 MHz band designed for point-to-point links and re-purpose it for LTE data.  With 60 MHz of spectrum and the wide availability of low-cost data dongles, Telkom has quickly risen to be a serious contender for mobile broadband.  Nigeria has very recently made spectrum available in this band with an auction last month that saw Bitflux Communications with 30 MHz of spectrum.  Senegal apparently has a universal service consortium operating in this band but more information than that was not available.

2300 MHz

Spectrum range: 2300-2400 MHz (100 MHz)
South Africa
Telkom3 x 20 TDDBitflux Communications1 x 30 TDDCSU SA (Opérateur de Service Universel)1 x 10 TDD

2600 MHz is another emerging band for LTE services but none of the four countries have assigned spectrum for LTE in this band.  South Africa has had plans in the works to auction the 2600 MHz band since 2009 but has failed to date to make this spectrum available.  One of the obstacles has been the fact that roughly 1/3 of the band was occupied by two existing operators.  The debate over whether and how the spectrum incumbents should re-farmed was a significant obstacle to be overcome.  It also highlighted the challenge of trying to satisfy demand for both TDD and FDD spectrum.  The reason the incumbents needed to be moved is that their TDD spectrum was low down in the spectrum band which made it impossible to assign any FDD bands.  A spectrum neutral approach would see a spectrum framework that accommodates both types of assignments. While I was unable to find specific assignments for Nigeria in this band, the regulator recently announced that they would be auctioning this band as soon as the spectrum was freed up from the national broadcaster in the context of the digital switchover.

2600 MHz

Spectrum range: 2500-2690 MHz (190 MHz)
South Africa
Sentech1 x 50 TDDNBC
WBS (iBurst)1 x 15 TDD

3500 MHz is another potentially important band for mobile broadband, especially for densely populated urban environments where its greater capacity will shine for small cell broadband.  This is comparatively expensive spectrum to deploy due to the greater number of towers required to achieve coverage.  In the United States, the FCC along with Google and others are promoting this band as a place to test the three tier access model promoted by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology (PCAST) report on spectrum. Historically 3500 MHz has been used for both WiMax and point-to-point links.

3500 MHz

Spectrum range: 3400-3600 MHz (200 MHz)
South Africa
Sentech2 x 14 FDDTelkom Kenya2 x 11 FDDGlo?
Neotel2 x 28 FDDKDN2 x 28 FDDMTN?
Telkom2 x 28 FDDOpen Systems Tech.2 x 7 FDDAirtel?
Airwaves Comms2 x 7 TDDEtilisat?
Comtec Group2 x 7 FDD
IGO Wireless2 x 7 FDD
SimbaNET2 x 7 FDD
PacketStream Data2 x 8 FDD
UUNet Comms2 x 7 FDD

700 MHz

So far, no African countries have assigned spectrum for broadband in the 700MHz band.  In all four countries, it is still a part of the spectrum allocated for terrestrial television broadcast.  Yet it is perhaps one of the most interesting spectrum bands for Africa as its excellent propagation characteristics make it an ideal technology for rural broadband both in terms of reach and in terms of cost of roll-out.  Also, the fact that 700 MHz is emerging as a global mobile spectrum band means that end-user devices from handsets to dongles will be cheap. The challenge will be how to make the spectrum available in a manner that promotes competition and encourages rapid deployment.  Spectrum auctions are almost unknown in sub-Saharan Africa with Nigeria being the only country to have carried out spectrum auctions.  While this has generated revenue for the Nigerian government, it is hard to say whether auctions have had a significant impact on either access or affordability there.  It is likely that an auction in the 700 MHz band in most African countries would see spectrum going to the incumbents. This is exactly what happened in the recent 700MHz auction in Canada.  Another approach would be to follow the model that Mexico has taken and assign the 700 MHz band to a carrier of carriers that would offer wireless infrastructure to any competitor.  There are indications that both South Africa and Kenya may be considering an approach like this.


WiFi connectivity is now a serious factor in “mobile” access.  Across Africa WiFi hotspots proliferate in cafes, hotels, and airports.   Mobile users actively seek out WiFi for cheaper and faster access.  However, an aspect of WiFi that is under-reported is its use for point-to-point links.  Companies like Ubiquiti and Mikrotik make very low-cost WiFi equipment that can extended connectivity in hundreds of megabits over hundreds of kilometres. Unfortunately not all WiFi regulation in Africa supports this.  In Zimbabwe, for instance, a license is required for WiFi point-to-point links and the regulator (POTRAZ) does not give out any licenses.  Among the countries in this overview, South Africa is the clear front-runner.  Not only does it have very progressive regulation regarding the use of WiFi for point-to-point and point-to-multipoint communication but it is the only country in sub-Saharan Africa to have an industry association, the Wireless Access Providers Association (WAPA), that represents the industry and promotes standards and good conduct.  With roughly 150 active members, this is a model that other countries would be well-served by emulating. In Kenya, by contrast, point-to-point WiFi is unlicensed as long as it does not cross a property boundary.  Use of WiFi beyond that requires registration and attracts an annual frequency fee of approximately $110 per terminal per year.  Given that the WiFi devices themselves will often cost less than $100, this is a significant drag on the innovation that could be happening for low-cost backhaul in both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz unlicensed bands. In Nigeria, WiFi is free for private use but a license is required for commercial use.  Senegal similarly requires users to apply for a license for point-to-point WiFi links.  As WiFi equipment continues to improve in capacity and affordability, restricting innovation in infrastructure deployment via WiFi represents and increasing missed opportunity.

Dynamic Spectrum

Dynamic allocation of spectrum is steadily gaining traction as a regulatory option, with the the VHF and UHF television spectrum bands being the first likely candidates for “white spaces” spectrum deployments.  It is a particularly appealing option in Africa where the UHF band is largely unoccupied and spectrum range in question of 450-700 MHz is particular well-suited to rural deployments.  Kenya and South Africa are both leaders in the deployment of this technology with each country having “white spaces” pilots deployed in 2013.  Nigeria is not far behind.  To date, Senegal has not announced intentions of exploring dynamic spectrum regulation.

Digital Migration

The transition from analogue to digital terrestrial television broadcasting has been in the works since 2006.  With just over a year to go, few countries in Africa seem likely to meet the deadline.  In South Africa, debates have ranged from which standard to adopt to whether signals should be encrypted to how set-top-boxes should be designed.  Kenya is probably the most advanced country in sub-Saharan African in terms of the digital switchover but even there the process is now mired in the courts.  In Nigeria, there is steady progress but concerns remain regarding the 2015 deadline. Delays in the switchover could have negative implications not just for television broadcasting but also for the emerging 700 MHz IMT band which is currently allocated to television broadcasting.  Dynamic spectrum allocation could also suffer. Although there is no reason for dynamic spectrum allocation to be delayed as it is a secondary use of spectrum, some regulators are reluctant to take any action regarding television spectrum before the switchover is complete.


Wireless technology is evolving rapidly and the challenge in spectrum management is both to keep pace with technological change but also to make decisions that allow for the future to surprise us as it always does.  The move to unified licensing by most regulators and to technological neutrality in spectrum licensing are great trends. Nigeria is interesting from the point of view of spectrum auctions.  While it is not obvious that auctions have directly led to more effective competition or lower prices than the other countries in this overview, the fact that the Nigerian regulator now has extensive experience in conducting auctions means that they can probably make new spectrum available faster and more efficiently than their peers.  One of the keys to successful spectrum auctions is having a well-understood and documented process.  Nigeria’s experience with auctions might allow them to move faster than other countries now that they have a clear framework for spectrum assignment.

Progress in roll-out and competitive pricing does not appear to be directly linked to spectrum assignment.  It could be argued that Senegal’s small number of operators and modest amount of spectrum assigned are a factor in the relatively high cost of access and low ICT index ranking but it seems more likely that is a side-effect of other processes such as a lack of government prioritisation of ICT infrastructure.  Kenya, by contrast, appears to have excelled in competitive pricing but without significantly more spectrum assigned than Senegal. If we are to judge by transparency and public availability of information, the Kenyan regulator tops the list, a model for other countries.  Nigeria is a close second.  On the other hand, South Africa and Senegal‘s regulatory web resources could use some work both in organisation and content around spectrum.

This comparison of spectrum regimes across these four countries is an attempt to look for strengths, weakness, commonalities, and opportunities in spectrum management in sub-Saharan Africa.  Yet it is really just scratching the surface of the issue and would benefit greatly from feedback.  I have deliberately chosen a subset of spectrum bands that I think are relevant to the development of wireless broadband.  If there are key bands you think I should have included, please let me know.  In general, I would be grateful to anyone who could point out mistakes, key omissions, or new insights from this overview.

Spectrum and the Paradox of the ITU

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is a paradox.  It is simultaneously an enabler and an obstacle to progress when it comes to radio spectrum. Formed in the late 19th century, one of the ITU’s key roles over time has been a seemingly simple one, to ensure that users of radio spectrum don’t interfere with each other in harmful ways.  The origins of this trace all the way back to the time of the Titanic where the importance of standards and non-interference for maritime distress signalling was made plain.  And that role carries on to this day where the ITU plays an essential role in ensuring that radio spectrum for critical functions like navigation, early warning systems, weather forecasting, etc are safe from interference.

paradoxGiven that the demand for spectrum has increased and that globalisation has increased the demand for devices that work anywhere, should we now be providing more resources than ever to the ITU to carry out its critical function of coordination and harmonisation of spectrum regimes?  Yes, and no.

As things currently stand, global spectrum allocation is a bit of a dog’s breakfast. By the middle of the 20th century, the interests of different regions in the world had diverged to the point where [big] countries were failing to agree on common usages for some ranges of spectrum. In 1947, this led to a carving up of the world into three global spectrum regions, roughly divided up by continents.  Region One covers Europe and Africa, Region Two covers the Americas and Region Three Asia and Australia.  Each region has its own spectrum allocation regime.

Unfortunately, what was a practical solution in the mid-twentieth century turned out to be a challenge in the globalised 21st century. These days, technology developed for one part of the world often will not work or may actually be illegal in another part of the world. The harmonisation of spectrum use is an ongoing challenge for the ITU.  As competition for spectrum increases, there is a race by telecommunications operators to secure any available chunks of spectrum they can.  While this is happening, the ITU is trying to harmonise the use of spectrum bands across the planet.  It is a bit like trying to fix your car’s engine while driving it.

Standardisation Bodies

Spectrum harmonisation is key because equipment and device manufacturers can’t afford to mass produce technologies to fit a wide variety of spectrum bands.  Right now there are 44 LTE spectrum bands.  That presents a huge challenge to manufacturers wanting to serve the LTE marketplace.  They have to guess what the popular bands will be and even there will likely be regional preferences.

At least in theory, the ITU is the correct place for spectrum harmonisation to happen.  The set of radio regulations developed at the ITU are governed by an international treaty which is legally binding on member states.  These regulations are renegotiated every 4-5 years at the World Radiocommunications Conference.  It is also true however that every country has sovereignty over their own spectrum which means they have the liberty to do what they want with their spectrum as long as it doesn’t cause interference for their neighbours.  In practice, most countries follow the ITU recommendations pretty closely for their region.

Where there is money, there is influence and because telecommunications is a multi-trillion dollar industry, corporate influence is a significant factor at the ITU.  Ostensibly the ITU is a neutral broker between government and industry but industry is often better resourced than governments at the ITU and can afford to invest a great deal in influencing the outcome because of the lucrative market that telecommunications has become.  For many governments, the separation between industry and government can be quite fuzzy thanks to state investment in telecommunications operators.  What is often lost at the ITU is the public interest.  This is due to the fact that the ITU hasn’t been organised to ensure that civil society has an empowered voice in its deliberations.

But the ITU isn’t the only place where spectrum standards are negotiated.  The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) is a coalition of telecommunications standard development organizations who are responsible for developing standards and specifications for key mobile technologies, including GSM, 3G, and LTE.  The 3GPP has a huge influence on the ITU where its standards are usually adopted. The 3GPP is no stranger to corporate influence either.  In the auctioning off of the 700MHz band in the United States, AT&T were able to use the 3GPP to balkanize the assignment of the spectrum to the detriment of their competitors. 

The 3GPP is not the only other important wireless standards body. There’s also the 3GPP2 which deals with the CDMA generation of wireless mobile technologies.  And there is the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) which is responsible, among other things, for the range of standards in the unlicensed spectrum bands including WiFi, bluetooth, and many others.  It is worth noting that the lighter weight processes of the IEEE have allow WiFi standards to evolve rapidly and responsively to the point where a comparatively small amount of spectrum available to WiFi now carries the majority of smartphone data around the world.

A Large Multilateral Bureaucracy

Thanks to its multilateral nature, every country member of the ITU has one vote.  These means that Djibouti has the same voting power as China.  This might explain why the ITU has an entire division devoted to building the capacity of developing countries to participate effectively in the ITU.  The ITU has four permanent regional offices in Africa.  One might see this as a positive pro-active development approach or perhaps more cynically as a means of encouraging compliance among developing nations.

Interestingly the last World Radiocommunication Conference in 2012 was the first time that African and Arab countries acted independently to influence the outcome.  African and Arab countries voted to prioritise the release of the 700MHz spectrum band over the 800MHz band in spite of a European agenda to do the opposite.  Perhaps this is a sign of African countries beginning to assert themselves more in these discussions.  Time will tell.

Like any large bureaucracy, the ITU is slow-moving and inherently resistant to change.  The overlapping layers of departments, working groups, etc make for a complex environment that generates its own politics in terms of power, access to resource, influence, etc.  Prior to the growth of mobile telecoms and the Internet, the ITU could get away with its lethargic pace of change.  However, in the fast-moving technological world we now inhabit, we can see the ITU struggling to maintain its relevance.  The ITU’s foray in 2012 into the realm of Internet governance is an example of this.

The cumbersome nature of the ITU combined with the somewhat unbalanced playing field that it represents makes the ITU a less than perfect organisation to deal with mounting pressure to make more spectrum available and to make more efficient use of spectrum.  For better or worse most developing countries wait to follow the ITU’s lead on spectrum policy.  This has resulted in things like the slow-moving train wreck that is the switchover to Digital Terrestrial Television in Africa.

Dynamic Spectrum To the Rescue?

So what’s the answer?  Reform the ITU?  Yes, although that is a process that will likely take years.  Another answer might lie in the changing nature of communication technology landscape.  In the struggle for spectrum efficiency the biggest potential gains lie in reducing the cell-size of wireless deployments allowing for huge gains in efficiency.  Smaller cells mean lower power deployments and lower power means fewer worries about interference.  Dynamic spectrum approaches that can assign spectrum use on the fly and negotiate power levels and interference automatically may offer an opportunity to devolve responsibility  for spectrum allocation and assignment to smart technologies.  TV White Spaces spectrum is the first instance of this but it is an approach that could be applied to any set of frequencies.  The ITU can carry on its important work of protecting spectrum for critical functions while allowing a certain amount of self-organisation to happen in designated spectrum ranges.  If successful, dynamic spectrum allocation may end up simplifying the job of the ITU by allowing more self-organisation.  At the moment we don’t know how far or how fast dynamic spectrum technologies will evolve but they may offer the only real hope for effective spectrum management in the future.

In the mean time we need fora for discussing spectrum management that prioritises the public interest and engages civil society in a meaningful way.

Paradox image courtesy Brett Jordan


Why You Should Read TV White Spaces – A Pragmatic Approach

book-imageMarco Zennaro and Ermanno Pietrosemoli of the Abdus Salaam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP)  have put together a great collection of essays on TV White Spaces with an emphasis on their application in emerging markets.  Entitled “TV White Spaces — A Pragmatic Approach“, it covers both technical and policy issues as well as providing information on real world pilots.

However, an issue as complex as White Spaces spectrum can be a little intimidating and the prospect of an entire book on it might cause those not already engaged in the topic to quail at the prospect of an entire book.  So herewith a brief introduction to the essays which make up the book, which are all standalone pieces in themselves.  The book breaks down into two sections, one on Advocacy and the other on Technology but many of the pieces overlap between the two.  You can read Marco and Ermanno’s introduction to the book here


Geo-Database Management of White Space vs. Open Spectrum
by Robert Horvitz, Open Spectrum Foundation

Robert tells the story of the genesis of spectrum regulation pointing at key historical factors such as its use as a critical communication technology  for ships at sea to the role of international patent regimes.  He points to the establishment of governments as sovereign owners of spectrum and argues that a strict authoritarian approach to spectrum regulation was not inevitable.  He goes on to illustrate the value of unlicensed spectrum and the opportunity for different approaches to spectrum regulation.  In the realm of TV White Spaces spectrum, Robert considers the merits of geo-location database approaches versus a spectrum sensing approach and concludes that a geo-location database approach could delay the development of genuinely smart radios.

Regulatory Issues for TV White Spaces
by Ryszard Strużak and Dariusz Więcek, National Institute of Telecommunications, Poland

The essay provides an excellent insight into the regulatory workings of the ITU and its role in spectrum policy and regulation.  It sets out three key objectives for any spectrum management system: conveying policy goals, apportioning scarcity, and avoiding conflicts, with due regard to social, political, economic, ecological, and other issues.  It covers issues such as the table of frequency allocations, frequency planning, as well as the role of the World Radio Congress.   Moving on to TVWS issues specifically, the authors point out that at the most recent World Radio Congress, the decision was taken to allow TVWS initiatives as long as they do not interfere with existing Radio Regulations.  They go on to outline the three modes of TVWS operation, namely:  spectrum sensing, pilot beacons, geo-databases.

Spectrum and Development
by Steve Song, Network Startup Resource Center, USA

In this piece, I attempt to contextualise spectrum management and regulation issues within the broader realm of information and communication technologies for development (ICTD).  I delve into the reasons why taking on spectrum regulation as a development policy issue is so important and set out some reasons why it may not have received the attention it deserves in ICTD debates to date.

New cognitive radio technologies, white spaces and the digital dividend in the Brazilian context
by Carlos A. Afonso, Instituto Nupef, Brazil

Carlos paints a detailed picture of the wireless environment in Brazil, making an eloquent case for dynamic spectrum regulation in his country.  He is specifically concerned that concerned that the voice of the under-served is being drowned out by mobile network operators who argue that mobile spectrum is the only way to provide access to under-served areas.

Policy-Based Radios
by Timothy X Brown, University of Colorado, USA and Carnegie Mellon University, Rwanda, and Jon M. Peha, Carnegie Mellon University, USA

In this essay, Timothy Brown and Jon Peha look specifically at the case of Rwanda.  They provide a detailed explanation and analysis of the different approaches policy-based radio access that are available to regulators.  It is worth pointing out that TVWS systems operate under a variety of names depending on how inclusive the authors are trying to be.  Policy-based radios refer to any wireless systems that can change its behaviour (frequency, power, etc) based on a defined set of policies.  TVWS systems fall squarely under this definition.  The authors outline a range of possible approaches, not only dynamic access via regulators but also via spectrum holders through dynamic spectrum leases on unused spectrum by primary holders.

TV White Spaces: Managing Spaces or Better Managing Inefficiencies?
by Cristian Gomez, International Telecommunications Union

Christian’s essay was originally developed as a background paper for the ITU Global Symposium for Regulators (2013).  As such it provides an excellent general overview of TVWS technical and policy issues from an ITU perspective.  This piece is a great general background on TVWS issues albeit with a slightly conservative perspective that is not entirely surprising given the context of the document.

The role of TV White Spaces and Dynamic Spectrum in helping to improve Internet access in Africa and other Developing Regions
by Mike Jensen, Association for Progressive Communications

Mike does an excellent job in this paper of explaining the overall ecosystem of connectivity in developing countries including fibre, public access, etc.  He unpacks the role of connectivity and explains why access for the poor is increasingly important.


White Space Broadband on the Isle of Bute, Scotland
by David Crawford, University of Strathclyde, United Kingdom

David provides a great technical overview of the Isle of Bute White Space Trial.  One of the earliest TVWS trials, it has provided key insights into the viability of TVWS as well as providing inspiration for other pilots.

Cognitive Radio and Africa
by Linda E. Doyle, University of Dublin, Ireland

In this piece, Linda explores the emerging technological paradigm of cognitive radio and looks at it applicability in the African context.  Like “policy-based radios”, “cognitive radio” is another umbrella term that is used to refer to dynamic spectrum approaches.

The Weightless Standard
by Alan Woolhouse, Weightless, United Kingdom

UK company Neul were an early champion of TVWS spectrum but with a focus on the Internet of Things (IoT).  With that in mind, they developed the Weightless Standards for IoT devices operating in TVWS spectrum.  Weightless is now an open industry standard.  This article by Alan Woolhouse explains its genesis.

Overview of White Space Standards
by Ermanno Pietrosemoli, The Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics, Italy

The early days of any new wireless technology are often confusing as various technical standards vie for dominance in how a technology is applied.  TVWS technology is no exception.  In this essay, Ermanno gives an excellent overview of the IEEE standards that have grown around TVWS technology.

Green Power for Rural Communications
by Sebastian Büttrich, Network Startup Resource Center, USA and IT University of Copenhagen, Denmark

The potential that TVWS technology represents for affordable rural access is highlighted in various parts of this book but wireless technologies must also have power to operate and sustainable power options can sometimes be glossed over in thinking through rural connectivity solutions.  In this essay, Sebastian gives a detailed analysis of the viability and application of solar power for rural connectivity.

Low Cost Spectrum Measurements
by Marco Zennaro and Andrés Arcia-Moret

One of the greatest challenges in dealing with spectrum policy and regulation is actually knowledge what spectrum is genuinely in use.  ICTP have developed low-cost tools for carrying out spectrum monitoring and in this essay Marco and Andrés explain the rationale, genesis and application of this tools.


The Real Reason Why White Spaces Spectrum Matters

monopoly_just_boardwalkYou may have seen a resurgence of news about “Net Neutrality” in the last few weeks.  This is because a US court recently ruled that the communications regulator (the Federal Communications Commission- FCC) doesn’t have the power to insist that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) operate according to anti-discrimination and anti-blocking rules that it set down in its Open Internet Order in 2010.  While this is not good news for advocates of Net Neutrality, it happened largely because of a strategic administrative error on the part of the FCC in terms of now to classify ISPs.  It is likely that the FCC will attempt to correct this error of classification in the near future.

In the flurry of news and blogging that followed this decision, one of the most interesting articles I read was by venture capitalist Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures.  He wrote a post imagining VC Pitches In A Year Or Two with a non-neutral Internet.  In that future, anyone who tried to compete with the likes of Spotify, Youtube, Facebook, etc were doomed because they couldn’t afford to subsidize access to their Internet services in the way that the incumbents could.  It pictured a world where the small player just couldn’t get a foot in the door.

It’s a great post and worth the read.  I wanted to cry though when I read it because that possible digital future is our current wireless reality.  As a digital startup, I can spin up a server on a host of cloud platforms at extremely low cost and scale them as I need them.  The same infrastructure that drives giants like Netflix, drives little startups.  This is a world of infinite potential where you ability to create is limited only by your drive and imagination.  Not so in the wireless world where Fred’s dystopian future is already a reality.  Do you have a vision of competing with the likes of Vodafone, MTN, or Airtel to provide affordable access?  Good luck.  In the wireless world, everything comes down to access to wireless spectrum.  And around the world the political and administrative systems for making spectrum available to anyone except an existing wealthy elite are broken.

Today spectrum is a highly valued resource and the most legitimate way that economists and policy-makers can think of disposing of it is through spectrum auctions which now generate billions of dollars in revenue.  The Indian 2G spectrum auction finished today generating nearly ten billion US dollars in revenue for the Indian government.  So in order to become a player in the wireless world, you need millions if not billions of dollars.  It is like playing a game of Monopoly where only the two or three most lucrative spots on the board exist.  Not only is the game no fun any more, it’s not even a game.  It is virtually impossible for a small player to break into the market.  Even in cases where the regulator has created incentives within spectrum auctions to encourage new players, they rarely succeed.

In their book, Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue the importance of upward mobility.  They illustrate case after case where open markets that nuture and encourage new players and allow them to grow thrive whereas those that allow an elite to sequester advantage and wealth ultimately fail.  They are not alone in this perspective. In Capitalism Redefined, Eric Beinhocker and Nick Hanauer argue that:

Capitalism’s great power in creating prosperity comes from the evolutionary way in which it encourages individuals to explore the almost infinite space of potential solutions to human problems and then scale up and propagate the ideas that work and scale down or discard those that don’t.

This is similar to Stewart Kaufman’s concept of the “adjacent possible” and also resonates with Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s idea of antifragility.  The bottom line is that if you don’t give the little guy a means of participating and growing,  you are both stifling growth and creating a system which does not fail gracefully.

So what to do?  Attempts to weight the wireless spectrum game in favour of the little guy tend to fail.  There is every indication that the game of access to spectrum is broken.  Except of course in the little bit of spectrum known as “unlicensed” spectrum or what is more popularly known as Wi-Fi.  I have written at length on the merits of WiFi and its incredible success but ultimately it is a very small amount of spectrum and limited in that respect.  However, the model of dynamic access to spectrum is a success worth building on and that is where “white spaces” spectrum comes in.  It is an attempt to build on the very successful model that has emerged in the unlicensed spectrum bands and expand them into other frequencies, most notably the UHF television frequencies.

Discussions about white spaces spectrum tend to focus on it being a more efficient use of spectrum or on the fact that UHF spectrum has better propagation characteristics.  Both fo those things are interesting and true but the real power of “white spaces” or dynamic approaches to spectrum regulation is the new entrepreneurial business models that could be built on the back of this approach; models that could re-open the wireless spectrum playing board to everyone.

Monopoly board image courtesy elPadawan


Mobile — You Keep Using That Word

You Keep Using That WordIn his predictions for 2014, Google chairman Eric Schmidt boldly states “mobile has won“.  For a man who has made some fairly ambitious predictions in the past,  pundits regarded this prediction as fairly tame, perhaps even self-evident.

Yet lurking beneath this bland platitude is an emerging paradigm change.  Let’s look at what we know about “mobile” technology.  We know that feature phones, smartphones, and tablets are all lumped together under the broad rubric of mobile.  Look closer though.  According to industry analyst Craig Moffett, about 80% of tablets sold are WiFi-only devices.  Of the remaining 20% about half of those are never activated and about half of the people who activate their mobile subscriptions end up cancelling them.  That would make 1 in 20 tablets a “mobile” device.

When it comes to smartphones, we know that the bulk of smartphone data travels over WiFi networks.  It varies from country to country but across a range of countries that figure is about 75%.  That is an astounding percentage for a “mobile” device.  New hybrid service providers like Republic Wireless in the United States are beginning to push back against this conventional wisdom.  In a recent article, Republic CEO, David Morken held up their flagship Motorola Moto X smartphone, and declared, ”This is a Wi-Fi device.”  That is a pretty big statement but it is reflective of just how successful WiFi has become.  If you read this blog, this will be old news to you.  It’s a drum I bang often.  ”Mobile” devices and mobile networks are not the same thing although the mobile network operators would love you to think so.

So when I saw this pronouncement from Eric Schmidt, I was reminded of Inigo Montoya in the The Princess Bride who finally could not resisting questioning criminal mastermind Vezzini’s use of the word “inconceivable”.  ”You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Does all of that add up to a paradigm shift?  Perhaps not on its own.  WiFi has become a ubiquitous last-inch technology capable of providing access anywhere people congregate, homes, workplaces, cafes, hotels, airports, you name it.  But that is only part of the picture.  Connectivity has to get to the WiFi hotspot.  And that is where we can see the beginning of a real paradigm shift.  When mobile networks first grew, they had to do it all.  They had to build the base-stations, build the backhaul to the base-stations, and provide the handsets.  The growth of national and metro fibre networks is changing all that.

As fibre networks become more pervasive and WiFi technologies (whites spaces technologies too) continue to improve in performance and to become more widespread, they have the potential to offer a complete “mobile” experience on a smartphone or tablet without resorting to mobile networks except when users are in transit between destinations. It increasingly possible to disaggregate the chain of access to the Internet and introduce more competition at every level of access.

The extent to which fibre infrastructure and unlicensed wireless will be a game changer in terms of access in African countries will depend on the leadership in policy and regulatory environments.  The combination of Open Access backbones, metropolitan fibre networks, and unlicensed wireless has the potential to level the playing field in terms of affordable access forcing mobile operators to adapt faster to remain competitive.  Now, wouldn’t that be a good thing?