Category Archives: Spectrum

A Look at Spectrum in Four African Countries

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Africa and Spectrum 2.0

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

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Africa and Spectrum 2.0

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


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


Africa’s LTE Future

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Africa and Spectrum 2.0

If you follow communication infrastructure in Africa, you would be forgiven if you have begun to think of LTE as the promised land.  There is no doubt that nobile networks have transformed access on the continent.  Now, we are apparently just waiting for the roll-out of LTE to complete the revolution and provide high-speed broadband to all.  This article looks at how LTE is evolving on the continent from the perspective of spectrum and device manufacturing.

LTE Spectrum

africa_lteIn the early days of mobile, spectrum was pretty simple.  Your GSM mobile phone usually supported 2 different bands, 900MHz and 1800MHz for Region 1 which covers Europe and Africa or 850MHz and 1900MHz for North and South America which is Region 2.  There’s also Region 3 which covers Asia but this is complicated enough for now.  The next type of phone to be seen was the tri-band and quad-band phone that embraced the global traveller allowing them to operate on mobile networks in both Region 1 and Region 2.  Anyone remember the Nokia 6310i?

Then came 3G mobile services which introduced new spectrum bands, 2100MHz in Africa and a number of different spectrum bands in North America.  At that point Nokia was still the dominant manufacturer and had a huge range of phones aimed at different markets.  Mobile phones tended to be very tied to national operators.

With the introduction of the Apple iPhone and what we now know as smartphones, things got more complicated.  Because popular smartphones are global brands, manufacturers like Apple want to sell just one phone but were actually forced to manufacture two or more different models in order be compatible with the spectrum regimes in different regions.  The original Google smartphone, the Nexus One, came in two different versions.  The version I bought works as a phone in both Africa and North America but I only get 3G in Africa because it isn’t designed for North American 3G frequencies.

And now LTE.  The standards body for LTE, the 3GPP, have defined over 40 unique spectrum bands for LTE.  Currently the most advanced smartphones in the world like the iPhone 5s or the Samsung Galaxy S4 can support a subset of those bands.  Apple have five different versions of the iPhone 5s for sale globally that support different combinations of spectrum bands and technologies.  The iPhone has arguably the widest support for LTE with about ten different bands supported compared to about five bands supported by the Galaxy S4.  In both cases we are talking about US$800 phones.  The challenge of producing an affordable, flexible LTE mobile phone for Africa has a long way to go.

LTE in Africa in 2014

Currently there are nine countries in sub-Saharan Africa that where LTE networks have been launched, a total of eighteen operators in total.  Here’s how it breaks down.

Company Frequency Launch Date
Unitel 2100MHz (Band 1) Dec 2012
Movicel 1800MHz (Band 3) Apr 2012
Orange Mauritius 1800MHz (Band 3) Jun 2012
Emtel 1800MHz (Band 3) May 2012
MTC 1800MHz (Band 3) May 2012
TN Mobile 1800MHz (Band 3) Nov 2013
Smile Telecom 800MHz (Band 20) Mar 2013
Spectranet 2300MHz (Band 40) Aug 2013
South Africa
MTN 1800MHz (Band 3) Dec 2012
Vodacom 1800MHz (Band 3) Oct 2012
Neotel 1800MHz (Band 3) Aug 2013
Telkom / 8ta 2300MHz (Band 40) Apr 2013
Smile Telecom 800MHz (Band 20) Aug 2012
Smile Telecom 800MHz (Band 20) June 2013
MTN Uganda 2600MHz (Band 38) Apr 2013
Orange Uganda 800MHz (Band 20) Jul 2013
MTN 1800MHz (Band 3)? Jan 2014
Econet 1800MHz (Band 3) Aug 2013

Source:  4G Americas Global Deployment Status  - Updated January 10, 2014

The first thing to know about the above is that none of these LTE networks are carrying voice traffic.  Voice over LTE or VoLTE, the emerging LTE standard for voice communication, has not been deployed anywhere in Africa.  This means that even networks that are offering LTE smartphones are still using GSM or 3G circuit-switched networks to carry voice traffic.  The move to VoLTE will be a big technical leap when it happens as LTE is the first generation of mobile connectivity to be entirely based on Internet protocols. Managing voice and data on the same network may present interesting new challenges for voice quality.

Movicel in Angola was one of the first networks to launch in Africa.  With Movicel, an LTE dongle will cost you about US$370 and they claim download speeds of up to 100Mbps.  The iPhone 5s is available too and that will set you back US$1500.  This is a service clearly aimed at elites, for the time being.

Some LTE networks are aimed exclusively at data users.  Smile Telecom, who have networks in Tanzania, Uganda, and Nigeria, offer a data only service.  The reason for this is largely historical as Smile attempted to launch WiMax networks in Uganda and Tanzania and learned a painful lesson about the importance of having a manufacturing ecosystem around the network devices.  The WiMax mobile handset never took off and as a result neither did Smile’s networks.  They must have deep pockets though as they have been able to leverage their existing investments in 800MHz spectrum to launch brand new LTE networks in each country.  They are staying away from handsets this time though and offering data services through dongles.  For more depth, have an excellent profile of Smile and their LTE strategy.

New Spectrum

For the time being, most African operators are recycling their existing spectrum for new LTE services.  It speaks to how much spectrum most of the big operators have that they can afford to do this and still maintain 2G and 3G networks.  There is a big push for new spectrum to be made available for LTE though especially in the 700MHz and 800MHz bands. This will bring new opportunities and new challenges.  A brand new iPhone 5s that works on any of the brand new LTE networks above, won’t work on 700MHz spectrum.  Manufacturers will be increasingly challenged to develop phones that suit different regions as countries prioritize different ranges of spectrum for release.

Manufacturers are likely to have time to work on this however as releasing what is now hyper-valued spectrum in a manner that encourages a competitive environment is proving to be a challenge.  The ongoing 700MHz auction in Canada is a good example of this.  As governments strive to encourage new competition, existing operators are likely to push for a hands-off approach which favours the incumbents.  This tension might well lead to further delays in the release of spectrum.

How Africa’s LTE Future Might Be Different

Unless a multi-band, affordable LTE smartphone appears on the horizon, LTE phones are going to be irrelevant to the vast majority of people on the continent.  However, the potential for LTE data is huge.  Data dongles, which are much more affordable (about ~US$ 70), can be used to backhaul data to a community and serve a variety of consumers.  This is what makes WiFi such an important complementary technology as WiFi-enabled phones and tablets tethered to an LTE-powered hotspot are a much higher high-value proposition than a single smartphone.  A challenge remains in the economics of bringing LTE to sparsely populated rural areas but what hopefully we are beginning to see now is the emergence of a much more interesting and potentially resilient ecosystem of communication access where a variety of technologies can serve the last mile: LTE, WiFi, whitespaces, and inevitably some things we haven’t imagined yet.

GSM and Dynamic Spectrum

MTN Coverage Map from South Africa

MTN Coverage Map from South Africa

Adoption of Television White Spaces (TVWS) spectrum saw great progress in 2013.  The Google-sponsored Cape Town TVWS trial was completed and the results were an unqualified success.  TVWS trials got underway in Malawi.  And Microsoft pushed ahead with pilots in Kenya and soon Tanzania and South Africa.

While TVWS has great potential in Africa thanks to the relative emptiness of television broadcast spectrum and the need for affordable rural broadband solutions, it is worth looking more broadly at potential of dynamic spectrum allocation beyond the VHF and UHF bands.   In particular, I want to raise the possibility of applying the concept of dynamic spectrum allocation to the GSM bands.  To many this will sound like heresy as most of the available spectrum in the GSM bands has already been assigned to mobile network operators (MNOs) for their exclusive use and that spectrum IS in use. At least we are led to believe that is true but it is hard to know comprehensively as most communication regulators don’t publish an up-to-date list of spectrum assignments for their country and very little is done in terms of actually spectrum occupancy surveys and analysis.

So what can we say from practical experience.  Experience tells that in most parts of sub-Saharan Africa, you don’t have to go too far out of an urban area or off a main highway to see coverage become much less reliable.  3G disappears almost immediately and even basic phone coverage can disappear pretty quickly especially in hilly areas.  The reason for this is that the economics for deployment in sparsely populated rural areas often doesn’t make sense for MNOs.  They can’t make enough money to justify building and operating a base station in many rural areas.

This is a bit of a raw deal for rural dwellers who are increasingly marginalised as the value of having communication access continues to rise.  The message from MNOs is that either the government must subsidise them to deliver rural services or they must wait until technology evolves and/or becomes cheap enough to make rural deployment practical.  The truth is that there is very little pressure on MNOs to deliver in rural areas.  The rural poor have no voice and don’t command the attention of politicians.

But just because the economics for rural access doesn’t work for the MNOs doesn’t mean there isn’t a model that can work.  Low cost GSM basestation manufacturers like Range Networks in the US and Fairwaves in Russia are producing affordable GSM basestation equipment that can be deployed for less than five thousand US dollars.  However, the current spectrum licensing environment forbids them access to GSM spectrum that has already been assigned to MNOs, even when that spectrum is not in use, as may be the case in many rural areas.

But what if you could use that spectrum?  What if, just like Television White Spaces, it were possible to have dynamic access to unused GSM spectrum?  This is not nearly as far-fetched as it may sound.  In Mexico,  Rhizomatica, a grass-roots non-profit organisation, have done just that.  They have sought permission from the regulator to use GSM spectrum in un-served villages near the city of Oaxaca.  According to founder Peter Bloom, they were able to take advantage of provision within the Mexican constitution which says that an indigenous community has the right to own and operate its own media infrastructure. Also, Mexican telecom law states that whenever a frequency is not being used in a specific area by the concession holder, that the ministry has the right to assign that frequency for social coverage purposes, or find other available and relevant spectrum.

Armed with that information Rhizomatica were able to approach the Mexican communication regulator with a letter signed by more than thirty indigenous communities seeking access to spectrum.  They were then invited to submit a formal technical proposal which led to an experimental license being given to use an un-assigned block of frequencies in the 850Mhz band.  With that they have been able to provide GSM communication services to over a thousand people.  Their success has been profiled by CNN, the BBC, and others. They are not the only example either.  Researchers at UC Berkeley have partnered with a local non-profit in Papua, Indonesia to put up a similar community GSM network.

These are small but bright examples of how rural communities might solve their own connectivity problems but not every community has the wherewithal to petition a regulator for spectrum.  But what if things were different?  What if, the same geo-location database technology that has been proposed to manage Television White Spaces spectrum could be used to make unused GSM spectrum available to small operators on a secondary use basis? Then small rural operators could be set up without a long administrative process. Why not?

But wait, it gets better.  The very same researchers at UC Berkeley have come up with a brilliant innovation that allows them to carry out spectrum sensing using ordinary GSM handsets. Their innovation, which they have already implemented as proof-of-concept on the the low-cost GSM technology that they currently use, enables each mobile phone connected to their network to sense occupancy in the GSM spectrum band.  The base station can then dynamically move away from any occupied frequency in the area. This concept works on even the most basic of mobile phones.  This approach either alone or combined with a geo-location authentication database could offer an effective guarantee of non-interference to the regulator.  A full explanation of this approach is available in a research paper published a few weeks ago.

In summary:

  1. The social and economic cost of not having access to communication is rising.
  2. The current paradigm of spectrum management is not enabling access for economically poor, sparsely populated, rural areas.
  3. The solutions to this problem are available to us but it is going take some communication regulators with courage and vision to allow these new approaches to take hold.