Tag Archives: mobile

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.

Mobile — You Keep Using That Word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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, 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.

35 Reasons to Worry About Privacy in Africa

Image courtesy of the fabulous Keep-Calm-o-MaticOver the last five years there has been a steady trend for African governments to implement mandatory SIM card registration policies.  This means that you can’t buy a SIM card for a mobile phone without producing an ID document and proof of address.  South Africa was one of the first African countries to do this but many have followed including Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria and many others.  At last count, no less than 35 African countries (see list below) have implemented obligatory SIM card registration.

The implementation of mandatory SIM card registration has been justified as necessary in order to assist law enforcement agencies in tracking down criminals.  Images are conjured up of thieves executing elaborate plots with the aid of disposable mobile phones.  In the post 9/11 zeitgeist, this is an argument that most find easy to digest.  Indeed, so much so that I am unaware of these policies being buttressed by any research evidence linking SIM card registration to a drop in crime or an increase in solved criminal cases.  Most news articles seem to provide as rationale the fact that other countries in the region are implementing such policies. A search through Google Scholar reveals very little research on this.  And indeed the only research I could find on mandatory SIM registration in Africa focused primarily on its economic impact on subscriber growth.

So what’s to worry about?  The classic rebuttal to objections to this kind of data collection is that if you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to fear.  And indeed, the “intent” of most legislation around SIM card registration is to clearly define and control when and how this information might be accessed by law enforcement agencies. But what is worrying is not so much lawful interception but rather when those rules get bent or broken.  We have seen countless examples now around the world of sensitive data being unlawfully accessed from email accounts to credit cards.

The very act of collecting data carries the responsibility to provide adequate methods and oversight for securing that data.  When organisations propose to collect potentially sensitive data, the burden of proof should be on them to justify the need for such data collection as well as their ability to keep that information secure.  I don’t believe the case has been clearly made for SIM card registration.  Certainly I don’t think the benefits outweigh the dangers.  Here is an example of why.

IMSI Catchers

There is a paradigm shift going on in the world of electronic surveillance.  It has gone from complex, expensive, and sometimes unreliable to simple, inexpensive, and highly accurate.  Increasingly surveillance technology has become commoditised.  The device advertised at the left is a great example of this.  It is an IMSI catcher, a device that listens passively to mobile phone traffic and picks up the identity of all of the phones in a given area.  It can be purchased for a few thousand dollars.  About the size of a suitcase, it can be installed on the bottom of a helicopter or on top of an apartment building.  In many countries, the passive nature of the IMSI catcher often means that using one does not legally constitute interception and thus they can be used with oversight by law enforcement agencies.

Now imagine that the government of the beautiful democracy that you live in does the unthinkable and implements some legislation that you object to.  You decide to exercise your free speech by participating in a public rally objecting to this legislation.  A helicopter hovers in the distance with an IMSI catcher attached to it.  Now your phone is in a database that has been collected of everyone who participated in the rally.  Without mandatory SIM registration, that database is just a list of phone numbers.  With it, it is potentially a list of names and addresses of people who the government has now identified as troublemakers.  Perhaps that sounds a little paranoid?  For a healthy democracy it probably is but there is plenty of evidence of authoritarian regimes using these tools and others.  And maybe your country is a democracy now but will it always be?

Naturally such violations of privacy couldn’t happen if the rules for accessing the SIM registration database were observed but that is precisely my point.  I don’t think it is reasonable to assume that the rules won’t ever be broken in the name of “security”.

Time To Ask Questions

The point of this post is to suggest that the time is now for civil society organisations in countries where mandatory SIM card registration has been implemented to starting asking questions, such as:

  • Does adequate technological and policy oversight exist to prevent SIM card registries from being misused?
  • What evidence is that that SIM card registries are actually contributing to crime reduction?
  • Are law enforcement agencies already using passive surveillance technologies like IMSI catchers?
  • Are passive surveillance technologies covered under existing legislation concerning the interception of communication?

And of course this is just the tip of the iceberg as we begin to understand the many ways in which in which the ever smarter mobile technologies create new possibilities for the invasion of personal privacy.  In the rich world, organisations like Privacy International and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are working hard to ensure that rapidly evolving communication technologies do not end up compromising our right to privacy.  Every country in Africa needs a civil society voice to ensure that individual right to privacy is not eroded with a phone call.

A List of African Countries with Mandatory SIM Card Registration

Country SIMRegistration Required?
Algeria Yes
Benin Yes
Botswana Yes
Burkina Faso Yes
Burundi Yes
Cameroon Yes
Cape Verde Yes
Central African Republic Yes
Chad Yes
Cote d’Ivoire Yes
Egypt Yes
Eritrea Yes
Ethiopia Yes
Gabon Yes
Gambia Yes
Ghana Yes
Kenya Yes
Liberia Yes
Mauritius Yes
Mozambique Yes
Niger Yes
Nigeria Yes
Republic of the Congo Yes
Rwanda Yes
Senegal Yes
Seychelles Yes
Sierra Leone Yes
South Africa Yes
Sudan Yes
Tanzania Yes
Togo Yes
Uganda Yes
Zambia Yes
Zimbabwe Yes
South Sudan Yes

Fair Mobile – Two Years On

In which I re-assert my self-appointed role of digitally holding African mobile operators’ feet to the fire for their rent-seeking behaviour.  In today’s spotlight is Vodacom South Africa.

Vodacom recently announced their Annual Report for 2010.  Vodacom is doing very well thank you very much and industry pundits gather to laud them for their hard work in the service of their shareholders.  But how well are they serving South Africa?  About two years ago, I started writing about the high cost of voice and SMS services in relation to income in Africa.  Have things changed much?  Here is a breakdown of Vodacom’s 4U pay-as-you-go offering in April 2009 versus May 2011:

Vodacom 4U Service April 2009 (ZAR) May 2011 (ZAR) Price Drop
General Service calls (Peak) 2.85 / min 2.58 / min 9%
General Service calls (Off-Peak) 1.12 / min 1.12 / min No Change
Vodacom to Vodacom (Peak) 2.85 / min 2.58 / min 9%
Vodacom to Vodacom (Off-Peak) 1.12 / min 1.12 / min No Change
Vodacom to MTN / Cell C (Peak) 2.99 / min 2.75 / min 8%
Vodacom to MTN / Cell C (Off-Peak) 1.30 / min 1.30 / min No Change
Vodacom to Telkom (Peak) 2.85 / min 2.75 / min 4%
Vodacom to Telkom (Off-Peak) 1.12 / min 1.30 / min -16%
SMS (Peak) 0.80 0.80 No Change
SMS (Off-Peak) 0.35 0.35 No Change

So the news is not all bad, prices have come down a little although critically SMS prices have not come down and in one case call charges have gone up, probably due to Telkom’s divestiture of Vodacom. Why did I choose the 4U plan? Well it is the one plan that is still the same after two years. Is it the cheapest plan? I have no idea. I’ve been to university but I couldn’t tell you which pay-as-you-go plan is best for me. They are deliberately constructed with a bewildering array of options which make calculating the right deal for you nearly impossible. So my choice is not scientific perhaps but hopefully representative.

Now, let’s turn to another Vodafone property, Kenya’s Safaricom. Same parent company, different pricing scheme. Here is their Ongea Tariff from May 2009 compared to today’s prices.

Safaricom Service May 2009 (KES) May 2011 (KES) Price Drop
Safaricom to Safaricom (Peak) 10 / min 3 / min 70%
Safaricom to Safaricom (Off-Peak) 10 / min 3 / min 70%
Safaricom to Other Network (Peak) 25 / min 4 / min 84%
Safaricom to Other Network (Off-Peak) 25 / min 4 / min 84%
SMS (Peak) 5 2 60%
SMS (Off-Peak) 3.5 1 71%

Quite a striking difference. It would be nice to give full credit to Safaricom but it is thanks to Airtel’s aggressive entry into the Kenyan market (their prices are even better) that obliged Safaricom to drop their prices. Also, note that in Kenya, effectively there are no more “plans”. It is 3Ksh/min on net and 4Ksh/min off-net. 1Ksh per SMS on-net and 2Ksh per SMS off net. I can understand that pricing plan.

So what does that mean in today’s terms?  Well, in Kenya, for a peak rate call to another network, you will pay about 4.5 US cents per minute and 2.2 US cents per SMS to another network (Airtel is 1.1 US cents).  In sunny South Africa, the price is 39 US cents minute and 11.4 US cents per SMS.  Yes, all in all about 9 times more expensive.  Does this blow your mind?  I can’t wrap my head around it.

Happily, Fair Mobile is back in action thanks to ResearchICTAFrica.  They have been researching mobile prices and looking for a good Macdonalds-style metric to compare pricing across countries.  Their first go at this was to compare cost of a litre of cooking oil to the number of minutes of airtime that you could purchase for that price.  Have a look at the presentation below.

But they have found something even more ubiquitious than cooking oil to compare to.  I won’t spoil the surprise though.  Stay tuned for more interesting results from them.