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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

Country
Population
(millions)
Land Mass
(sq km)
Kenya1,7814247.7582,650
Nigeria2,69716448.8923,768
Senegal2,0051339.2196,190
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.
Country
World
Bank:
Doing Business
(rank)
Ookla:
Net
Index

(Mbps)
Research ICT
Africa:
Cheapest
Prepaid

($US)
Kenya129116186.564.3
Nigeria147122194.437.36
Senegal178124246.7113.32
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
Kenya
Nigeria
Senegal
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
Kenya
Nigeria
Senegal
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
Kenya
Nigeria
Senegal
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.

800MHz

South Africa
Kenya
Nigeria
Senegal
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
Kenya
Nigeria
Senegal
 
Total:60Total:Total:30Total:10
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
Kenya
Nigeria
Senegal
Total:65Total:Total:Total:
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
Kenya
Nigeria
Senegal
Total:140Total:178Total:?Total:
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

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.

Conclusion

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.

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
Angola
Unitel 2100MHz (Band 1) Dec 2012
Movicel 1800MHz (Band 3) Apr 2012
Mauritius
Orange Mauritius 1800MHz (Band 3) Jun 2012
Emtel 1800MHz (Band 3) May 2012
Namibia
MTC 1800MHz (Band 3) May 2012
TN Mobile 1800MHz (Band 3) Nov 2013
Nigeria
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
Tanzania
Smile Telecom 800MHz (Band 20) Aug 2012
Uganda
Smile Telecom 800MHz (Band 20) June 2013
MTN Uganda 2600MHz (Band 38) Apr 2013
Orange Uganda 800MHz (Band 20) Jul 2013
Zambia
MTN 1800MHz (Band 3)? Jan 2014
Zimbabwe
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, Telecom.com 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.

 

 

 

 

 

Malawi Leaps Ahead With White Spaces Pilot

Malawi is not a country that often makes the international news, particularly not in the realm of connectivity. Economically poor and landlocked, it faces significant challenges in achieving affordable access for all. While both the incumbent telco (MTL) and the electricity parastatal (Escom) have national fibre backbone networks, achieving affordable Internet access in rural areas remains a huge obstacle.

Dr. Chomora Mikeka

Dr. Chomora Mikeka (University of Malawi)

That could all be changing thanks to the vision of Chomora Mikeka, a lecturer at the Physics Department at Chancellor College of the University of Malawi.  Chomora has forged a partnership between the Physics Department and Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) to establish a White Spaces pilot project in Zomba.   The pilot also enjoys the support and collaboration of the Marconi Wireless Lab (T/ICT4D) at the International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy.  ICTP have a long history of supporting wireless access research in Africa.

On behalf of the Network Startup Resource Center (NSRC), I was able to join the pilot deployment team as they set up the first connections for the pilot.  I met up with Chomora ten days ago along with the ICTP team of Marco Zennaro, Ermanno Pietrosemoli, Carlo Fonda, and Andrés Arcia-Moret.  ICTP have extensive experience in the deployment of wireless networks around the world and are an ideal technical partner for Chancellor College and MACRA.  The pilot is designed to connect a number of different institutions including a school, a hospital, an airport and a research facility.

Rural Connect Base StationThe first step in setting up the network was establishing that the base station equipment was functioning correctly.  Like the white spaces trial in South Africa, the pilot is using equipment from Carlson Wireless.  At the time of procurement, Carlson was the only company ready to supply white spaces equipment.  This is changing slowly.  The base station depends on an Internet connection in order to validate and download any updates to the system from Carlson.  Having verified that the base station could communicate with Carlson’s server from behind the university’s firewall, it was time to move to the next step, setting up the main antenna.

Carlo Fonda (ICTP)

Carlo Fonda (ICTP) deploying white spaces antenna

The pilot is using a unique omni-directional antenna produced by Carlson which is designed to offer performance across a wide range of UHF frequencies.  It looks like a big mailer tube and is pretty hefty.  Arrangements were made with the nearby Chancellor College community radio station to use their FM tower to mount the antenna.  The FM tower is a tall guyed-mast affair that looked a little dubious when it came to supporting the weight of an installer and the antenna, however, the experienced ICTP team were able to get the white spaces antenna in place along with a 5GHz backhaul link in a matter of hours.  The antenna was mounted at a height of 23m which according to the initial spectrum measurements carried out by ICTP should provide a range of up to 20km.  Having a ready-made high site in the form of the FM radio tower to mount the antenna on saved both time and expense in the deployment.

Yagi Antenna

Yagi Antenna

This is the first deployment, to my knowledge, of a point-to-multipoint omni-directional white spaces antenna in Africa. One of the interesting questions to explore will be how many white spaces clients can be supported connecting to a single omni antenna.  At the other end of the link, the white spaces client devices use a different kind of antenna known as Yagi-Uda or more commonly Yagi antenna.  A Yagi antenna looks a bit like the business end of a swordfish and is designed to focus a radio signal for maximum range.  Typical Yagi antennas are very limited in the bandwidth range they can operate over.   The ones deployed in the pilot are a significant modification of the original Yagi design,  offering a gain between 9 and 11 dBi over the frequency range from 400 MHz to 800 MHz.

Tryness Kantedza (MACRA) and Chomora Mikeka (U of Malawi)

Chomora Mikeka (U of Malawi) and Tryness Kantedza (MACRA) check readings on a spectrum analyser

One of the best things about the pilot deployment was that it wasn’t just the technical team of Chomora and ICTP involved in the deployment.  Chomora had a number of his students from the Physics Dept involved and they were able to learn from the experts at each stage of deployment.  Equally interesting was the involvement of MACRA who sent Spectrum Planning Officers, Stan Chimgoga and Tryness Kantedza to participate in the deployment as well.  It bodes well for this pilot that there is such involvement and commitment to the pilot. Indeed, Lloyd Momba, Director of Telecommunications at MACRA as well as Jonathan Pinifolo, Deputy Director for Spectrum Management have been pivotal in the bringing the project to fruition.

The pilot connected a number of different types of institutions.  I wasn’t able to stay for the entire deployment but was able to get the full story afterwards from Marco and Ermanno.   First, a girls school.  St. Mary’s Girls Secondary School serves about 480 students and is only 2.4km away from the FM tower.  Connecting schools is a strategic issue for MACRA as they hope through white spaces technology, they may be able to aggregate demand and provide a less expensive connectivity option for schools than the current option of ADSL.  They also hope that white spaces will reach schools beyond the range of copper wire networks.

Next came Pirimiti Community Hospital.  This is one of the more interesting and challenging links for the pilot as it is about 20km from the FM tower.  Unfortunately, an initial site for the yagi antenna had to be changed and the deployment there was delayed to allow for the construction of an independent 12m mast for the antenna.  Other sites included the Seismology Department of the Government of Malawi which is a research node and partner in the continental AfricaArray project and  and finally a link to the Malawi Defense Force, Airwing (Air Force Maintenance Department).

The pilot deployment team has installed monitoring appliances in the form of Alix boards at each site to run performance measurements, the results of which will be openly shared.

Almost more challenging than the white spaces links was the Internet uplink for the project.  Initially there was to have been a fibre connection to the FM radio station itself.  Unfortunately this link had not been built in time for the pilot deployment.  As a backup plan the Chancellor College offered to share its connectivity with the project.  This was implemented via a 5GHz point-to-point link between the college and the FM radio tower.  Unfortunately the entire university campus in Zomba is limited to 5.5Mbps of service 4Mbps from MTL (fiber) and 1.5Mbps from Astrium (VSAT).  As the white spaces pilot came on line, the additional bandwidth use caused the university IT managers some concern and ultimately they were obliged to withdraw bandwidth support for the pilot.

It is a tribute to the Malawian regulator that, in the face of this obstacle, they have committed to providing a dedicated 2Mbps link at their own expense for the pilot for a full year.  It is frankly inspiring to see the support and leadership that MACRA have brought to this pilot.  Their plans are to run the pilot until December of this year and then make an assessment.

In contrast with other white spaces pilots/trials, less emphasis has been put on the idea of a geo-location spectrum authentication database.  Geo-location databases, while not part of the original concept of television white spaces spectrum, have emerged in the U.S. and U.K. as a compromise between white spaces advocates and opponents of the technology from the broadcast and wireless microphone industry who have expressed concern about interference.  A geo-location database would force white spaces devices to authenticate first to confirm what channels were available prior to commencing operation.

The pilot proponents take as their starting position the fact that television spectrum is significantly unused in Malawi, especially in rural areas.  This may mean that it is feasible to develop white spaces technology initially in Malawi without the overhead of a geo-location database.  On the other hand, they recognise the benefits that a spectrum database can offer in terms of creating a knowledge-base of spectrum occupancy, of being able to vary power output levels for differing contexts, and in potentially extending dynamic spectrum use beyond the VHF/UHF bands.  Their perspective is that a geo-location database can be a natural evolution in developing white spaces regulation but not a requirement to get initial regulation in place.

All of this above makes Malawi an absolutely fascinating place to watch white spaces technology and regulation evolve.  It is possible we may see an African model for white spaces regulation emerge from Malawi that may be better suited to the sparse spectrum occupancy of the TV bands in the region.  The fact that this initiative is owned equally by the University of Malawi and MACRA bodes well for the development of regulation that is appropriate to the problem at hand, rural access.  Malawi may well be the first African country to establish white spaces regulation.

Below is a brief video interview about the pilot with Chomora Mikeka.

A range of photos from the deployment can be found on my Flickr page as well as that of Marco Zennaro.

Note:  Thanks to Chomora Mikeka, Marco Zennaro, and Ermanno Pietrosemoli for invaluable additions and corrections to the original article.

 

 

Why Bill Gates is Wrong About Project Loon

In a recent interview with Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Bill Gates took issue with long time competitor Google and their plans to create an alternative communication infrastructure using balloons (Project Loon). He says:

When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you. When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that. Certainly I’m a huge believer in the digital revolution. And connecting up primary-health-care centers, connecting up schools, those are good things. But no, those are not, for the really low-income countries, unless you directly say we’re going to do something about malaria.

I’ve heard this sort of thing from folk in the international development world for years, mostly older folk still dictating their emails to their secretaries.  ”Yeah, but how is this going to help the poor farmer in rural Tanzania?”  It is frankly surprising to hear it from it from Bill Gates.  Erik Hersman responded to Gates’ comments by pointing out two things:  1) that Gates is perpetuating a narrative about Africa which portrays Africans as helpless; and 2) that development is of course multi-dimensional and it is not an either-or question.

mosquitoI agree with Erik on both points but I want to go farther in saying that Gates is just flat-out wrong.  Communication infrastructure has everything to do with Malaria according to this 2007 study on the “Role of information and communication networks in malaria survival“.  The researchers claim that up to 82% of all malaria episodes in sub-Saharan Africa are treated outside the formal health sector and that 70% of the malaria cases that are treated at home are mismanaged.  As a result, access to a resource or a person that can assist in diagnosis and treatment is key to reducing morbidity and mortality.

In a study carried out across 70 countries, the researchers found that intensity of communication infrastructure is strongly correlated with reduced probability of death from malaria.  They conclude by saying:

In preventing malaria, ICN [Information and Communication Networks] may not have a direct impact similar to malaria drugs but it can certainly increase the effectiveness of the intervention strategies and resources indirectly. ICN can speed up the delivery of services and provide access to crucial health information. Access to information and knowledge allows the community members to participate in opportunities and activities related to their own development.

This reinforces Erik’s point that constructing the argument as a choice of one or the other is disingenuous.  It also points out that basic communication infrastructure does in fact have a critical role to play in malaria prevention.  Note also that there is no direct causal line here.  No malaria hotline or mobile app.  No philanthropic initiative that can claim victory for their intervention, just access to communication infrastructure generally.

So what about Project Loon?  Is it going to revolutionise the world of connectivity?  I seriously doubt it.  That said, I also doubted YouTube and Twitter in their infancy.  Project Loon is a very high-risk idea, so risky its sounds a bit “loony”, a fact that is obviously not lost on the the project founders.  Is pursuing high risk projects like Project Loon a bad idea?  No, it is a pretty smart approach.  They are pursuing what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls a barbell strategy which promotes a combination of investment in extremes kept separate, with avoidance of the middle.  Thus Google can continue to milk the ad revenue cow they have reared but also take chances on risky bets that have very high upsides if they succeed but low comparative cost to Google if they fail.

Finally, what appeals most to me about the role of communication infrastructure is that it ultimately promotes self-reliance, increased social capital, and local innovation.  Initiatives that focus on lowering the cost of access and making it more ubiquitous will indirectly (and perhaps directly) contribute to African countries shrugging off the vestiges of dependency they have on the largesse of plutocrats of any flavour.

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Mosquito image courtesy of Gerald Yuvallos CC 2005 BY-ND