Tag Archives: WiFi

A Look at Spectrum in Four African Countries

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

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

General Country Statistics

Country
Population
(millions)
Land Mass
(sq km)
Kenya1,7814247.7582,650
Nigeria2,69716448.8923,768
Senegal2,0051339.2196,190
South Africa11,2815163.11,219,912

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

ICT Rankings

In all the rankings below a lower number indicates better with the exception of the NetIndex.
Country
World
Bank:
Doing Business
(rank)
Ookla:
Net
Index

(Mbps)
Research ICT
Africa:
Cheapest
Prepaid

($US)
Kenya129116186.564.3
Nigeria147122194.437.36
Senegal178124246.7113.32
South Africa4184124.9212.06

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

Spectrum Assignments

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

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

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

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

900 MHz

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

1800 MHz

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

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

2100 MHz

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

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

800MHz

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

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

2300 MHz

Spectrum range: 2300-2400 MHz (100 MHz)
South Africa
Kenya
Nigeria
Senegal
 
Total:60Total:Total:30Total:10
Telkom3 x 20 TDDBitflux Communications1 x 30 TDDCSU SA (Opérateur de Service Universel)1 x 10 TDD

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

2600 MHz

Spectrum range: 2500-2690 MHz (190 MHz)
South Africa
Kenya
Nigeria
Senegal
Total:65Total:Total:Total:
Sentech1 x 50 TDDNBC
WBS (iBurst)1 x 15 TDD

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

3500 MHz

Spectrum range: 3400-3600 MHz (200 MHz)
South Africa
Kenya
Nigeria
Senegal
Total:140Total:178Total:?Total:
Sentech2 x 14 FDDTelkom Kenya2 x 11 FDDGlo?
Neotel2 x 28 FDDKDN2 x 28 FDDMTN?
Telkom2 x 28 FDDOpen Systems Tech.2 x 7 FDDAirtel?
Airwaves Comms2 x 7 TDDEtilisat?
Comtec Group2 x 7 FDD
IGO Wireless2 x 7 FDD
SimbaNET2 x 7 FDD
PacketStream Data2 x 8 FDD
UUNet Comms2 x 7 FDD

700 MHz

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

WiFi

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

Dynamic Spectrum

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

Digital Migration

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Unpacking Our Mobile Broadband Future ITU Y U NO LIKE WIFI?

ITU Y U NO LIKE WIFI?The future is mobile.  We all know that.  We read it everywhere.  In the UN Broadband Commission‘s recently published report entitled, The State of Broadband 2012: Achieving Digital Inclusion For All, ITU analysts boldly announce their belief that:

“mobile broadband could prove the platform for achieving the boost needed to get progress back on track – at end 2011, there were already almost twice as many mobile broadband subscriptions as fixed broadband connections.”

But what does it actually mean and is it really true?  When talking about our mobile broadband future, it is essential to distinguish between devices and networks.  The two things are not necessarily the same thing.

The Future is Mobile Devices

This future I believe in.  Small, low-power wireless devices whether phones or tablets are taking over the way we interact with each other and with content.  New markets and services are being created every day for mobile devices.  The world of app and apps stores are creating new opportunities for innovation and adding value.

The Future is Mobile Networks

This is the future mobile operators would like you to believe in but the evidence is increasingly not in their favour.  Here are some statistics that may change your perspective of our mobile broadband future.

Global Smartphone-originated Data Traffic

Global Smartphone-originated Data Traffic
January 2012 – Source: Mobidia

A recent study by Mobidia revealed that about 70% of smartphone data traffic travelled via WiFi and not mobile networks.  Keep in mind that this research was not done in Africa, it was done in the industrialised world.  What we are seeing overwhelmingly is WiFi become the default form of data access and cellular access being relegated to those times when WiFi is not available, an increasingly rare phenomenon in the rich world.

The figures are even higher for tablet traffic.  And while we’re at it, since when are tablets “mobile” devices?  Of the fifty million tablets sold in the United States, only 8% have mobile capacity.  The tablet is not a mobile device, it is a WiFi device.  Google’s Nexus7 tablet is WiFi-only.  Both Microsoft’s new Surface tablet and Apple’s new iPad Mini are likely to launch as WiFi-only devices.  Why would Apple and Microsoft do that?  Well, one reason might be to avoid the painful process of negotiating mobile carrier agreements.  Imagine if computer manufacturers had to negotiate ISP agreements to connect a computer to the net.  The latest tablet is also a whole lot cheaper than a smartphone.  Compare a $200 Nexus7 tablet with an $800 Samsung Galaxy S III smartphone.

So what’s my point here?  My point is that the UN Broadband Commission’s recently published report on Achieving Digital Inclusion mentions WiFi exactly twice, both times parenthetically.  Mobile operators would like you to believe that the future of mobile broadband lies in the LTE networks that they are building.  And certainly that is partly true but only partly.  If the Mobidia stats are to be believed, about 30% true.

Mobile operators have no interest in WiFi because they currently have no control over WiFi networks although that is beginning to change in the U.S.  And we get reports like the one from the UN Broadband Commission because the dialogue at the ITU is dominated by operators.  The Broadband Commission itself is chaired by Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world.  The irony of putting the richest man in the world in charge of a commission to connect the poor appears to be lost on the UN.

In any discussion about the mobile broadband future of Africa, WiFi is simply not part of the discussion.  Yet the evidence is before our eyes of the strategic importance of WiFi to our “mobile” devices.  It’s cheap and fast and grew to solve the problem of affordable access by chance not by design.  It happened because WiFi is an open space for technology developers to innovate.  No carrier agreements required.

Also not mentioned in the UN Broadband Commission’s report is the potential of Television White Spaces spectrum, a space for with the potential for massive innovation in rural access.  Another area not controlled by mobile operators.

The benefits of WiFi go beyond just cheaper access.  They also create the opportunity to eliminate the weakness of a single point of failure that mobile networks create.  WiFi infrastructure can make it harder to wilfully shutdown communication in a given geographic region.  The key to resilient networks is plurality of access and WiFi is already embedded in every smart device you can think of.

It would be nice to see WiFi recognised for the powerful role that it is already playing in mobile broadband and to see it figure in national strategic broadband plans for the future.

The Death of Fixed Lines in Africa

It's ironic that the telephone wire used in these baskets is not commercially available for sale anywhere.  You'd think that might be a value-add wholesale offering from Telkom.  :-)

Zulu telephone wire basket image courtesy of Ethekwinigirl

Today I want to push back a little (just a little) against the conventional wisdom that mobiles are the only communications infrastructure future for Africa. There is an implicit understanding in ICT4D work in Africa that mobiles are the future and fixed lines are an archaic hangover from an inefficient, monopolistic, state-run, colonial past. Perhaps I exaggerate for the sake of effect but it is hard to argue with when development agencies are racing to jump on the “mobile for development” train.

So let’s look at the evidence. Mobile infrastructure continues to grow beyond all expectation in Africa while fixed line infrastructure has mostly remained static or even declined in some cases. On the face of it, this appears to support the case for Africa’s “mobile” future. The implicit understanding in this is that mobiles are just better on so many levels that natural selection will cause fixed lines to atrophy like some vestigial evolutionary accident. I don’t want to challenge the remarkable value of mobile phones but I do want to challenge the notion that they are a complete replacement for fixed lines. Fixed lines are a complementary technology that have a role to play in any communications ecology.

What is a Fixed Line?

Before I go into detail why, it is worth unpacking what is a fixed line. Fixed lines in Africa are generally understood to mean the legacy copper infrastructure held by the former incumbent monopoly telco. So fixed lines already start off with a bad rap, being associated with bureaucracy, inefficiency, and incompetence. It gets worse though because the value of copper as a commodity has made existing phone lines a popular target for theft. This has the dual effect of making copper phone lines seem even more unreliable than when they were simply being poorly maintained and also disincentivising the fixed-line operator from continuing to invest in copper infrastructure. The final nail in the coffin is that telcos don’t offer copper phone lines on a pay-as-you-go basis. Pay-as-you-go is well-known as one of the key enablers of the mobile revolution but copper fixed lines are just too expensive too offer on a pay-as-you-go basis. Arguably things don’t look good for the fixed line.

But copper wires are just one kind of fixed line. A fixed line is just communication connection that doesn’t move about. Fixed wireless, such as the CDMA-based service being offered by Neotel and others on the continent is another kind of fixed line. One particular benefit of this technology is that it typically operates in a different spectrum range from mobile services which means that operators can deploy fixed wireless solutions without having to have or compete for expensive and scarce GSM spectrum licenses.  WiFi also has the potential to offer fixed line services.  The increasing availability of WiFi on mobile phones point to interesting possibilities in terms of mixing communication infrastructures.

So Why Fixed Line?

But still, why would you bother? The mobile phone so personal, so ubiquitous that it trumps the fixed line in every way… or does it? Here are a few reasons why I think the fixed line, if it overcomes currrent technological challenges, may be around for a while.

1) Sometimes you don’t want to call an individual. For any institution, be it school, police station, hospital or corner shop, when you call them you are generally more interested in being connected with services associated with the institution rather than a particular person. This is not limited to institutions. When I call home, I am happy to talk to whoever is home. There is almost a happy serendipity to whoever answers the phone.  Your brother that you don’t always get on with perhaps… a connection made that maintains social ties.

2) Fixed wireless can be cheaper than mobile. Not having to deploy ubiquitous mobile coverage means that fixed wireless can be rolled out at a much lower cost that mobile infrastructure as it can be done in a more boot-strapped fashion than mobile services. The fact that fixed wireless is currently mostly deployed by existing telcos using relatively expensive CDMA gear means that the full benefit of this option has yet to be realised. Full disclosure: I am betting that the Village Telco can offer fixed WiFi voice and data services in a manner which is both affordable and complementary to mobile services.

3) A full-size handset can be a beautiful thing. A handset that comfortably isolates the ear are not necessary in a fixed line solution. I note with interest companies like Native Union and SparkFun that connect a traditional handset with your mobile technology of choice.

Summing Up

This post was triggered by reading that Rwandatel recently reported a seven percent increase in fixed line subscribers. When you think about it, it’s obvious. Both fixed and mobile solutions are useful. The challenge for fixed line provision is to be as cheap and payment-flexible as a mobile solution. As I have said before, the future is not mobile but rather a seamless experience over an ecology of heterogeneous networks. Emerging IEEE standards such as 802.21 and 802.11u offer the promise of interoperability across WiFi and mobile networks. See recent blog posts by David Isenberg, Bill St. Arnaud, and Brough Turner that point in this direction.

Finally, it is slightly ironic that from an ICT development policy perspective, we urge regulators and policy-makers to adopt a technology neutral stance so as to accommodate the always unpredictable evolution of technology. A more technology neutral stance on the part of development agencies themselves might not be a bad thing.

WiFi on Steroids Approved in U.S.

November 4th was truly a good news day in the United States.  Not only did the American people elect a leader who will hopefully begin to heal the damage done by 8 years of the Bush regime but, on the same day, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved the use of new wireless devices that will operate in the television broadcast spectrum utilising open so-called white spaces in that spectrum.

The decision has been bitterly opposed by broadcast companies who claim that the devices will degrade television signals.  However, the FCC has carried out extensive testing and has determined that the devices can operate without affecting television broadcast services.  The FCC’s decision to approve this spectrum use was unanimous.

All “white space” devices will be subject to approval by the FCC.  This new generation of wireless devices will use a combination of technologies to operate within the television spectrum.  Most devices will have geo-location technology and will access a database of the incumbent services via the Internet, which will let them know what spectrum is available for use.  The devices will also have spectrum-sensing technology which will alert them to spectrum in use.  Some devices will be approved without the geo-location technology i.e. with just spectrum-sensing but they will be subject to a more rigorous approval process.

To date only prototype devices have been tested.  It is estimated that commercial products are about 18 months away from market.  How remarkable would it be if South Africa (and developing countries in general) were to approve the use of “white space” spectrum in time for those products to come to market?

So what makes these devices so much more amazing than WiFi?  It is more the spectrum than the technology itself that will allow “white space” devices to offer dramatically improved performance over WiFi.  Television spectrum has much better propagation characteristics than the 2.4GHz and 5MHz bands that WiFi uses.  This means that radio signals can travel further and move through obstacles more easily, making it both easier and less expensive to set up wireless networks.

This was an important decision in terms of delivering broadband access to underserviced areas in the United States but think how much more impact this technology might have in developing countries where underserviced and overpriced is the norm for access.

Opening Spectrum in South Africa

It’s time to get down to business and start developing a civil society position on spectrum management in South Africa.  The key purpose of spectrum management is to maximise the value that society gains from the radio spectrum.  That has traditionally been done in a command-and-control manner treating spectrum as a completely finite, scarce resource.  But things are changing.

The recent ruling in South Africa which effectively opened up the telecoms market to full competition, now sadly being appealed by the Department of Communications (DoC), got me thinking about “what next”. Suppose that the DoC come to its senses and abandons the appeal or perhaps a sensible judge throws the appeal out, what next? The regulator (ICASA) have a huge number of issues to address ranging from interconnection to local loop unbundling. But for me, one issue stands out after the Altech ruling and that is spectrum management. For many service providers, having an i-ECNS license will not be very meaningful if they are unable to get access to spectrum.

Given that ICASA seem unlikely to address spectrum management for at least another year, thanks to other pressing priorities, now seems like the perfect time to mobilise debate within civil society on what principles we would like to see enshrined in spectrum regulation. Certainly, there are a few issues that come to mind.

Transparency

Given the level of cronyism that has characterised the SA telecoms market in the last 15 years, embedding transparency mechanisms into spectrum regulation is a highly attractive proposition but not one that is by any means a given. Building on Paul Collier’s premise that Open Standards might lead to better practice, it would be worth exploring what sorts of standards might be proposed to ICASA to ensure a fully transparent process in the allocation of spectrum.

Readiness for a Different World

As radio and computing technology continue to rapidly evolve, our ability to make more and more efficient use of spectrum increases.  Policy and regulation need to be developed so as to allow as many of the highest value users access as possible.  As technology will continually move this goalpost, regulation needs reflect this shifting environment.

Open Spectrum and Innovation

Unlicensed spectrum, in particular the 2.4 and 5Mhz bands have proven to be magnets for innovation.  Initially declared unlicensed because they were ‘garbage’ spectrum unsuitable for broadcast, they have been instrumental in enabling powerful and most importantly unpredictable innovations.  The ubiquity of WiFi in computing devices could not have happened were in not for the fact that everyone is permitted to experiment in this bandwidth.  Creating more open spectrum can only stimulate further innovation.  The Wireless Innovation Alliance championed by Google and Microsoft in the United States is an attempt to have more bandwidth set aside as open.  The debate in this area has been heated.  Now is the time to start looking at such issues in South Africa before they get captured by vested interests.

For those of you new to the “White Spaces” debate, here is a link that I picked up from Sascha Meinrath’s blog to a video produced by the People Production House in New York.  It’s a lovely introduction to the pro side of the white spaces debate.

If you’re interested in getting involved in such a debate in South Africa, I’d love to hear from you.