Tag Archives: policy

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.

Why You Should Read TV White Spaces – A Pragmatic Approach

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Weightless Standard
by Alan Woolhouse, Weightless, United Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

Spectrum Auctions for Beginners

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Africa and Spectrum 2.0

In the previous article, I looked at the merits of licensed vs. unlicensed spectrum and suggested that there might be scope for some new approaches. Here we’re going to deal with licensed spectrum and the process of auctioning spectrum which has become the dominant means of assigning popular licensed spectrum frequencies.

Spectrum auctions are now generally accepted as a “best practice” for assigning spectrum where demand exceeds availability. When spectrum was plentiful, administrative assignment seemed to work well enough but as demand for spectrum increased with the growth of wireless technologies, new methods were required. In the United States, the regulator experimented with spectrum lotteries where anyone could join a lottery for spectrum access. So called “beauty contests” where applicants for spectrum are qualitatively evaluation according to a set of criteria have also been used. It is easy to see the flaw in the randomness of a spectrum lottery but what’s wrong with a beauty contest? On the surface it seems eminently sensible to declare a set of policy goals and eligibility criteria and then evaluate applicants to find the most suitable. The reality is that the qualitative nature of these decisions tends to leave them open to challenge by disgruntled losers, especially if those losers are particularly well-resourced. Worse the decision-makers in a spectrum beauty contest become targets for influence.

auctionAnd this was exactly what economist Ronald Coase argued in 1959, that political pressures would inevitably result in misallocation of spectrum and administrative entities lack the decentralised information necessary to allocate spectrum effectively. Building on his own theory of economic efficiency he argued that if “property-like” rights were associated with spectrum licenses and transaction costs were low that the market could most efficiently organise the assignment of spectrum.

Coase argued that bid prices in auctions are a useful proxy for how organisations value spectrum with the assumption that those that value spectrum most would go on to create the highest social and economic value with that spectrum. Ignored for years, he was vindicated in 1994 when the U.S. regulator implemented the first spectrum auction. Since then spectrum auctions have gone on to become the dominant model for assigning high-demand spectrum.

Auction Goals

If the goal of a spectrum auction were simply maximising revenue, then auctions would not be nearly as complicated as the currently are. Regulators are often trying to achieve multiple goals through a spectrum auction, including:

  • ensuring efficient use of the spectrum band;
  • promoting a competitive telecommunications market and avoiding unbalanced concentration of ownership of spectrum;
  • avoiding manipulation of the auction; and,
  • generating public value in the form of revenue from the auction.

Achieving the right balance of all of the above turns out to be quite challenging. An auction is a game in which players strive to get as much spectrum as possible for as little money as possible. Auction participants often use the latest in game theory expertise and software modelling to optimise their outcome from a spectrum auction.

Because of the large amounts of money now involved (the 2008 700MHz auctions in the US generated nearly 20 billion dollars in revenue for the government) the rules of participation in a spectrum auction need to be crystal clear in order to both maximise trust in the process thereby encouraging participation and to avoid litigation as a result of an accusation of unfair play by a participant.

This means that auctions are now quite expensive to organise and run, sometimes costing in excess of a half million dollars. In fact, most auctions are now outsourced to spectrum auction consultants who assist in the design of the auction to achieve the government’s strategic goals as well as the execution of the auction.

It is safe to say that any regulator is well-advised to hire a spectrum auction consultant if only because they can be sure that the auction participants will be hiring auction experts as well.

Auction Types

There are two dominant types of spectrum auctions in use today.

Simultaneous Multi-Round Auction (SMRA)

This is the oldest and best known form of spectrum auction. In it, multiple lots of spectrum are auctioned simultaneously in a series of rounds. In this case a individual lot refers to a specific frequency band in a specific geographic area. An auction would typically have multiple frequency bands available in multiple regions. An SMRA auction is dependent on the regulator allocating the specific frequency lots prior to the auction so the bidders know exactly which chunk of spectrum in which geographic region they are bidding on.

Each round of bidding sets the standing high bid for each lot and the rounds continue until there is no excess demand. The great strength of this auction type is that it is comparatively simple and well-understood by all.  This facilitates speed in organising the auction as well as maximising the chance of participation.

Unfortunately the SMRA auction also has numerous drawbacks. The predetermined nature of the spectrum lots can lead to inefficiencies where some bidders may end up with non-contiguous blocks of spectrum. This may happen inadvertently or it may be a result of predatory bidding by competitors.

There is also the danger of prices going unnecessarily high with the winning bid paying significantly more than would have been required to win, the so-called “winner’s curse”.

Finally, there is the danger of tacit collusive behaviour on the part of bidders where an informal understanding among bidding entities may result in lower bid prices as each company targets a spectrum band that is understood to be theirs. Auctions designers have introduced rules into SMRA auctions that make this more difficult but it remains a risk.

Combinatorial Clock Auction (CCA)

The Combinatorial Clock Auction or CCA was designed to address many of the shortcomings of the SMRA auction. In a CCA auction, participants bid on generic lots of spectrum rather than individual lots. This means that the band plan for a given frequency at auction is not pre-determined as it is in an SMRA auction but is calculated after the auction in a manner designed to optimise the outcome for all successful bidders. This increases the likelihood of optimal use of the spectrum band as well as making it more difficult for participants to engage in collusive behaviour.

The auction then proceeds not by bids but by a “clock” process where in each bidding round a “clock” which represents the value of a generic lot of spectrum is incremented by a set amount. Bidders simply indicate whether they would be prepared to pay the price on the clock in that round. This is a subtle but important difference from the straightforward bid in the SMRA auction in that the clocks facilitate prices discovery among the participants. That is to say that the participant collectively inform each other through this process of how they value spectrum. Even with the best experts in the world, spectrum is a notoriously difficult thing to value and the price discovery function of a clock-style auction performs an essential function in normalising the value among the bidders.

Finally, instead of the winning bidder paying the full price of the winning bid, they pay the second highest price so it is still the case that whoever values the spectrum most wins but they pay no more than the minimum required to win. In a combinatorial auction with multiple lots and winners, this can get a bit complicated but the “2nd price rule” has evolved to cope with these complexities.

So, why doesn’t everyone just carry out CCA auctions now? Well, CCA has its weaknesses too. First, it is a much more complex auction to design and execute. This makes it a much more expensive undertaking and it also increases uncertainty on the part of participants who will not know exactly what spectrum they will get until the auction is over. That may be a disincentive to participation. CCA auctions work best with larger spectrum auctions often including multiple spectrum bands.

Spectrum Reserves in Auctions

A final contentious area of spectrum auction design is that of the reserve price or minimum opening bid for spectrum. Set the reserve too high and potential bidders may choose not to participate. Set it too low and run the risk of not realising the full value of the spectrum. There appears to be an unfortunate trend in spectrum auctions to place a disproportionate weight on the revenue generated from the auction as opposed to the revenue that will be generated by the cheaper and more pervasive access to telecommunications that occurs when spectrum is assigned efficiently and effectively. The economic impact of communication infrastructure is well-documented but seems to pale compared to the priority of maximising revenue from spectrum auctions. This seems like a mistake worth avoiding.

Activity Rules, Caps, Set-Asides

Spectrum auctions can be tweaked in different ways in order to prevent bad behaviour, encourage competition and/or limit the power of dominant players. For example, in order to last-minute bidding, activity rules can be established ensure that bidders must participate throughout the auction. Caps on spectrum ownership can be set to limit how much spectrum one player can own. Spectrum set-asides can be created to ensure spectrum is available to new players in the market. All of these tweaks are established to encourage specific outcomes and sometimes this works. It is also true however that the more complex a spectrum auction becomes, the greater the chance there is of an unexpected, undesirable outcome.

In Summary

As I read the news of spectrum auctions from around the world, I am reminded of what Winston Churchill said about democracy, that is was “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been”. Perhaps that might be a good description of spectrum auctions, being the worst way to assign spectrum except for all the other ways that have been tried. Given the value that is now placed on spectrum, the risk involved in spectrum auctions for both the government and for bidders grows ever higher and as a result any failure to effectively and efficiently assign the spectrum grows ever more costly. I don’t expect spectrum auctions will go away any time soon but it does seem that we need a risk mitigation strategy to complement auctions of licensed spectrum that hopefully will reduce the impact of failure when it happens. Dynamic secondary use of spectrum such as “White Spaces” spectrum is likely one answer to this but as technology enables more nimbleness both at the wireless interface as well as at the management interface, new ideas and approaches are likely to continue to emerge.

Spectrum — To License or Not To License

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series Africa and Spectrum 2.0

In part one of this series on Spectrum 2.0, I highlighted just how complex radio spectrum management is and why experts can’t seem to agree on whether we are running out of spectrum or entering an age of abundance.   I finish by saying that the challenge around spectrum management is that still haven’t worked out a very satisfying means of deciding who gets what spectrum and for how long. So let’s look at the two success stories in wireless access: mobile networks and WiFi.  Those are now the two dominant end-user wireless access technologies in the world and they represent two very different models for accessing spectrum:  exclusively licensed versus unlicensed access to spectrum.

Exclusive-Use Spectrum Licenses


Alas poor Yagi…

Exclusive licensing of spectrum is the model that has underpinned the success story of mobile telephony around the world.  Under this model operators are given access to large chunks of spectrum often on a national basis.  Licenses are long-term, typically 15 years, and are renewable.  The long period of the license and the exclusivity of use are the hallmarks of this model.  The advantage of this approach is that it guarantees that the operator’s communication technology will not suffer interference at the hands of other operators/technologies and it also provides a long time window for the operator to deploy their network increasing the likelihood of their becoming profitable. At the time when exclusive-use licenses were first granted for mobile networks in the early 90s in Africa, spectrum was deemed plentiful and exclusive spectrum licenses were typically granted at zero cost to the operator.  This made sense as no one was sure at what rate mobile networks might grow and certainly no one predicted the massive success that they became.  As mobile networks grew and investors saw how potentially profitable mobile networks in Africa could be, demand for spectrum increased and regulators began to struggle with the challenge of how to determine who should be awarded these now extremely valuable spectrum licenses. Even though there was no overall shortage of spectrum, the frequencies defined for GSM mobile use by the ITU and for which manufacturers produce equipment were limited to a few spectrum bands, which directly limited the number of spectrum licenses that could practically be awarded.  Since March of 2005 when The Economist trumpeted the impact that mobile networks were having in Africa, mobile has gone on to define access to communication in Africa in the popular press.

Regulated Unlicensed Spectrum Use

2013-05-13_Wi-FiA very different but equally amazing success story is that of unlicensed spectrum use in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, particularly WiFi communication.  From its humble beginning connecting laptops in cafes, hotels, and airports, WiFi access is now to be found in almost any commercial or public building not to mention its default use in the home as the end point of a broadband connection.  It is estimated that 2.14 billion WiFi chipsets will ship in 2013.  This figure is expected to grow to 3.7 billion in 2017.  We now see WiFi in smartphones, tablets, cameras, printers, even refrigerators and weigh scales.  It has become the default “last inch” technology.  Unexpectedly it has now grown to play a critical role in mobile networks as well as a means of offloading the burgeoning demand for data on mobile devices.  In countries, like the U.K., WiFi accounts for as much as 75% of all smartphone data traffic. Ironically, this has not happened as part of a strategic roll-out of WiFi infrastructure by operators.  WiFi infrastructure has largely grown organically through end-user purchasing of devices.  WiFi was dismissed as too unreliable to be considered serious communication infrastructure.  But it is hard to argue with the evidence.  75% of smartphone data travelling via WiFi is a statistic that demands attention.

ITU – Why You No Like WiFi?

Last year, when the ITU and UNESCO’s Broadband Commission launched their Broadband Report 2012, which purported to chart the future of access particularly in the developing world, I gave them a hard time about the fact that they completely ignored the success and role of unlicensed spectrum.  In this year’s report, they do a bit better and acknowledge not only the role of WiFi in mobile data offload but they also highlight some case studies of rural WiFi access and they acknowledge the potential of the latest frontier of unlicensed access, that of Television White Spaces spectrum.

However, lest anyone in the world of unlicensed spectrum get any ambitious ideas, Dr. Anne Bouverot, Director General of the GSMA, had this to say in the report:

The licensed use of spectrum, on an exclusive basis, is a time-tested approach for ensuring that spectrum users — including mobile operators — can deliver a high quality of service to consumers without interference. As mobile technologies have proliferated, demand for access to radio spectrum has intensified, generating considerable debate and advocacy for new approaches to spectrum management, including proposals for the use of TV ‘white spaces’ and other spectrum-sharing arrangements. While these innovations may find a viable niche in future, pursuit of these options today risks deflecting attention from the release of sufficient, licensed spectrum for mobile broadband [emphasis added].

What Dr Bouverot has to say is problematic on a couple of levels.  One, the fact that exclusive licensing has worked in the past is no indicator that it will be a successful strategy on its own in the future.  Exclusive-use spectrum licensing can, at best, offer a linear increase in spectrum availability but we know that estimates of demand growth are non-linear. Two,  it is disingenuous to depict unlicensed spectrum, such as “white spaces” technology, as something that might actually distract regulators from dealing with demand for licensed spectrum.  There is absolutely no reason for both strategies not to be pursued in parallel.   One only need read the Broadband Report to know that the mobile industry is in absolutely no danger of having attention deflected from its agenda.  Dr. Bouverot goes on to say:

The mobile industry is uniquely positioned to provide widespread broadband service to those who do not yet have it. Citizens around the world are just beginning to reap the true rewards of mobile. Proposals for experimental technologies and attempts to develop new business models risk obscuring the fact that licensed mobile services are the most viable, scalable and best-established model for extending broadband to citizens. Exclusively licensed spectrum for mobile is delivering on the goal of access for everyone, where other technologies fall short, and is providing direct employment and increasing productivity across many sectors. By following best practices in spectrum management, based on proven outcomes, governments around the world will secure a bright future for their citizens through mobile broadband.[emphasis added]

Once again there is a basic assumption that what has worked previously will work in a future where the demand landscape has changed dramatically.  More to the point however is Dr. Bouverot’s claim that mobile operators are best place to provide broadband to those who don’t have it.  If you look at a typical MNOs coverage map in sub-Saharan Africa, you will see that urban centres are generally well-served with 3G and, in some cases, 4G services.  Major roads will typically have GPRS/EDGE services.  The people who aren’t being served are those in sparsely populated rural areas.  The reason they aren’t being served is that MNOs don’t have an economic model for service provision there.  The CAPEX / OPEX models don’t stretch into these areas.  However, there are examples of more nimble local approaches that could offer a more sustainable model for rural access.  These new approaches do not detract from a licensed spectrum approach. They can be explored together.

So What’s The Answer?

Current debates around licensed versus unlicensed spectrum approaches remind me of where the debate on digital intellectual property rights were 12 years ago.  You had a choice between making something open, under a completely open license, or opting for the more closed regime of traditional copyright.  Advocates argued zealously on either side and there didn’t appear to be much middle ground.  We see something similar today with licensed and unlicensed spectrum approaches.

What changed with copyright was the arrival of the Creative Commons as a movement which sort to define a range of options when it comes to copyright.  They were able to break down the element of copyright e.g. right to modify, right to be attributed, etc into understandable chunks and allow people to choose from a palette of rights to decide how to protect their work.  This offered a great deal more flexibility for creators and opened up new avenues for both sharing and business creation.

What we need now is a kind of Creative Commons for spectrum management that establishes a palette of options for how spectrum might be managed ranging from mono-ownership, exclusive rights to spectrum to unlicensed use.  There are numerous ideas that are being explored from geo-location database-driven approaches with ‘white spaces’ technology to lite-licensing to licensed shared access such as is being explored in the European Union.

In fact, we might go further, and re-think the paradigm.  Preston Marshall, one of the authors the PCAST report on spectrum in the U.S. and now with Google, suggests that we abandon the notion of a license being a “right to exclusivity” and move to a license being a “right to protection from interference”.  Indeed protection from interference is the purpose of granting exclusive licenses.  But if protection from interference could be achieved via technological means such as spectrum sensing, geo-location databases, or a combination of these approaches then we might open up the market for rural access to real competition.