“The Calm Before The Storm” was the subtitle I used to describe my experience of the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance’s Global Summit in 2014. Fast forward to 2015 where I have just returned from this year’s Global Summit in Manila, which I attended on behalf of the Network Startup Resource Center (NSRC). Is there a storm of manufacturing and deployments, one year on? No, not yet but interesting things are happening. Here’s what I learned.
The success of dynamic spectrum is an interlocking puzzle with each piece from manufacturing to regulation to deployment dependent on each other. Dynamic spectrum hardware is a keystone puzzle piece though without which the rest of the picture doesn’t make sense. This year was notable in that virtually every manufacturer in the dynamic spectrum market was represented at the Summit. This along with the dramatic increase in participant turnout at the event was a very positive indicator.
Last year we heard about a new tri-band chipset that was being developed through a partnership between Mediatek and Aviacomm. While that is still on the cards, it has proved to be a bit of a disappointment as Mediatek don’t sound as committed to it as they did last year, in spite of it still being scheduled for a Q4 release this year.
In contrast, while continuing to partner with Mediatek, Aviacomm have also announced their own product based on their AF3010 chipset. The AF3010 was in trials in 2014 but now in full production. Aviacomm equipment based on the AF3010 is being used as part of a national connectivity project by the government of the Philippines. It is interesting that while this equipment is compliant with FCC standards for TVWS operation, it is based on the more common 802.11an WiFi standard rather than the emerging 802.11af or 802.22 Television White Spaces (TVWS) standards. This simplifies manufacturing for Aviacomm and lowers costs. The trade-off is that it is not interoperable with other TVWS equipment. As the market evolves, standards are highly desirable for consumers as it prevents vendor lock-in and encourages good behaviour among manufacturers. However, in the early stages of market development, it may be that the perfect is the enemy of the good and having affordable equipment ready to deploy may trump the need for standards which can evolve in tandem with the market.
Other vendors at the summit, including Carlson, Adaptrum, 6Harmonics, and Japan’s National Institute of Information & Communication Technology (NICT), all announced that they would have new products shipping in 2015. Significant here is that many of these 3rd generation products are moving from FPGA to ASIC manufacturing. Without getting too technical, this is an indication of the maturation of the technology from advanced prototyping for small markets to mass market. ASIC manufacturing represents a significant drop in production costs.
Carlson appear to have partnered with chip manufacturer Saankhya Labs for the next generation of their equipment. Even more interesting is their announcement of a Crowd Investment campaign seeking a broad range of investors to support their new platform.
I came away from the manufacturer’s session at the Summit somewhat humbled by their vision and willingness to stake their reputation and finances on a dynamic spectrum enabled future. I too believe this is inevitable.
As with the manufacturer’s session, I was impressed with the turnout of companies including ATDI from France, FairSpectrum from Finland, SpectrumBridge from the US and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) from South Africa.
The big question I came into the session on geo-location databases with was whether they were necessary for countries with loads of empty UHF spectrum and comparatively modestly-resourced regulators. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa fall into this category. Do they need the all-singing-and-dancing dynamic spectrum management solution before deploying dynamic spectrum at scale? The consensus seemed to be no, that regulators could proceed without having to have a complete geo-location database solution in place. A sensible suggestion was made that regulators that choose this route should still implement a type-approval regime that insists that all dynamic spectrum equipment should have support for geo-location so that, as the regulator adopts geo-location database technology, existing deployments can easily be adapted to a database approach.
Peter Stanforth of SpectrumBridge emphasised the extent to which emerging markets could leverage existing investments in geo-location database technologies to be at the forefront of spectrum management as a means of future-proofing spectrum regulation. He spoke of the work that had been done by the DSA in development “model rules” for regulators to build on combined with the learning that has been gained from places like the US, UK, and Singapore in the implementation of geo-location databases.
Ntsibane Ntlapa gave an African perspective on the problem recognising the capacity issue for regulators that may not have the initial spectrum occupancy data needed to populate a geo-location database. He also spoke about their bilateral partnership with the government of Ghana in supporting a TVWS pilot there.
Most interesting for me, was Heikki Kokkinen of FairSpectrum who gave me an insight into the future hybridised world of spectrum management where licensed and unlicensed spectrum are more of a continuum than a binary option for regulators. To illustrate this he asked us to imagine how a geo-location database might enhance a licensed spectrum regime. If those with spectrum licenses were obliged to report to a geo-location database, one could imagine the dynamic assignment of spectrum within a licensed band such that exclusivity is maintained but specific location within a spectrum band could be managed by the regulator to make most efficient use of the band. This hints at the way that geo-location databases could solve many spectrum management challenges.
Silicon valley investor Marc Andreesen famously said “software is eating the world”. It seems inevitable to me that software will eat the problem of spectrum management and those countries that are in the forefront of this are going to have a huge leg-up.
As in other areas, the turnout from regulators at the Summit was impressive with representatives from Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Benin, Bhutan, Bolivia, Ghana, Nigeria, Botswana, Nigeria, the United Kingdom and the United States. It was fascinating to see how leadership is shifting in this space. Ira Keltz, Deputy Chief, Office of Engineering and Technology for the FCC gave a talk in which he clearly framed dynamic spectrum as the future of spectrum management. He made the point the scope for traditional spectrum licensing in the US is almost exhausted. By contrast, Rachel Clark, Director of Spectrum Policy for OFCOM in the UK gave a talk that was timid by comparison. Previously the global leader in dynamic spectrum regulation, OFCOM seems to be moving ahead with dynamic spectrum regulation but in an extremely cautious manner. One could almost imagine that the broadcast lobby, so active in the US, has caught up with the UK.
Regulators from South Africa and Malawi, both of whom who were present last year, were conspicuous by their absence this year. For South Africa, this can be at least partially attributed to the government’s failure to provide competent leadership to the sector. Dynamic spectrum is still part of the regulator’s plans but is competing with various other urgent priorities. Malawi is still on track for implementing dynamic spectrum regulation this year. Microsoft has provided equipment for new pilots in Malawi and has offered support to the regulator in the development of regulation.
The most impressive regulator from Africa this year was Henry Kanor, Director of Engineering for the National Communication Authority (NCA) in Ghana. Ghana has enthusiastically embraced dynamic spectrum with no less than four pilots currently underway, one of them already operating commercially. Kanor emphasised that the market was simply not providing services to certain key areas and that dynamic spectrum offered the potential to address this gap.
Botswana was not far behind with Tebogo Ketshabile of the Botswana Communications Regulatory Authority (BOCRA) making the key point that current spectrum regulation is not keeping up with the pace of technological change. With support from Microsoft, they have authorised a 3-year pilot.
There were two things that really stood out from me coming away from the event. One was the announcement of the Philippines government of a national broadband roll-out that would embrace WiFi, dynamic spectrum technologies, and fibre. A 30 million dollar project designed to provide public access to Internet. Both Aviacomm and NICT are involved in this project. Its vision lies not just in the goal of affordable access for all but also in the recognition that there is no one-size-fits-all technology. Affordable access will be achieved by technological diversity which allows the right technology to fit the purpose.
The second big takeaway for me was just how important a role Microsoft is playing in this landscape. Their support for pilots across the world and their support for regulators is playing an absolutely pivotal role in unlocking the potential of dynamic spectrum as an affordable access technology. This is really making a difference. It is on a par with Google’s vision for metro fibre in Africa.