Open spectrum in Peru: Capitalising on an opportunity to democratise access to the internet
By AF for APCNews
MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, 21 March 2012
The APC initiative “Open spectrum for development” aims to improve knowledge of spectrum regulation through studies of the situation in Africa, Asia and Latin America. As part of this project, five countries in Latin America, including Peru, presented reports on their national situation.
Maicu Alvarado and Gabriela Perona of CEPES co-authored the national report on Peru. APC spoke with them to discuss the findings.
APC: What are the main opportunities and obstacles that you see in regards to use of the spectrum?
Maicu Alvarado (MA): Peru has been advancing in the introduction of new technologies, like terrestrial digital television, the expansion of mobiles, and even the development of wireless technologies. It seems to us that there is a favourable context for discussing, generating policies, and taking actions that expand access to the internet. So the context is an interesting one for thinking about a strategy for use of the spectrum. Indeed, this is also part of an international context. But the real capacity cannot be measured because there is no institutional capacity at a government level – nor capacity of other types of organisations – that would allow for measuring how these opportunities are being taken advantage of.
Gabriela Perona (GP): In our study we did not identify any more important or more focused discussion about what it is needed in the Peruvian context to be able to take advantage of these opportunities. The authorities and the organisations are just not thinking about it. In that sense, the real opportunity to take advantage of this situation would be, in principle, to think about what companies, manufacturers, and distributors of equipment would be required to take advantage of certain frequencies. This would include thinking about internet service providers, not only the large ones, but also the small ones. What are the conditions for them to be able to offer services, or resell services? We also felt that much more research and advocacy is required by civil society organisations to think about what strategies we can use to take advantage of this opportunity. And much more active participation is also needed from universities and institutes.
APC: Why is this not being thought about? Is it a matter of lack of information on the issue?
MA: Yes, in fact it is. The fact that equipment manufacturing and distribution companies have not appeared has to do with the opportunity that television migration offers not being taken advantage of, for example, but it also has to do with a lack of information about how that migration is going to be carried out, in what stages, when exactly the frequencies are going to be free, what the government is thinking about for the use of that frequency, and what is happening in other countries around using WiFi over the bands that were previously used for television channels. I think that one problem is that this is considered to be a technical issue, and that is also because of a lack of information. A more timely dissemination of information would help for taking advantage of these opportunities that are currently underutilised.
APC: Do you think that conditions exist in the country to operate in what are called the ‘white spaces’ of television? Do you know of any cases where cognitive radio technologies have been used?
GP: First of all, in Peru there is as of yet no policy formulated on the use of the digital dividend. Indeed it seems to us that it is not even being discussed. It seems to us that given the context there is going to be a lot of pressure from companies, both in telecommunications and the large television networks, and in addition if we consider that the authorities think of the spectrum as a resource, as something which economically benefits the state through concessions and auctions, there is the risk that there is no thought of releasing those frequencies for a more public or community based use. It has in fact been said that the digital dividend is going to be used for 4G technology, but it has not been said if they are going put the bands out for concession – as is most likely – or if they will be opened to a public auction. Other bands will be left, but that is not being discussed. As far as cognitive radio goes, in our research we have not been able to find that information. Nevertheless, it seems to us that it could be interesting, given that there are many spaces in rural areas where this could work.
MA: The fact that there are no cognitive radios is another example of how little promotion there is of alternatives for wireless internet access through smaller companies. This can be seen as an example of how little development there is of alternatives in the private sector, and of what little hope they have of using the dividend for this type of use. It is also true that digital migration in Peru is going to take a long time. The deadline that is being put forward is 2024. Meanwhile it is unclear for how long the television stations – that now use analogical bands and are already using the digital bands – are going to be using both.
Something that can be done, at the same time that long deadlines are set that can make sense in terms of generating a digital market, is to meanwhile be defining what the uses will be of the spaces that are going to be freed, and also to promote the expansion of alternative services. There are small cities that analog television does not reach, and there the frequencies are free. Experiences could already be had in those places, but there are pressures from the large operators for these frequencies to be used for mobile telephony. And in Peru there is no large internet service provider that can serve as a counterweight to the demands of the telecommunications operators who are the main suppliers of internet access.
GP: The possibility of carrying out experiments during this time of digital transition are limited, because the transition plan does not contemplate how the dividend will be used.
APC: To what extent do the processes of allocation of the spectrum respond to the needs of the population, and to what extent are they guided by commercial logics?
MA: In Peru, not only in the field of telecommunications but in general, commercial logics dominate in policy discussions. All of the telecommunications sector falls within the framework of one policy: “Guidelines for opening the telecommunications market”. What that policy seeks – as do the other policies of the country – is economic growth. That makes the needs of the population drop out of sight and development needs too if we understand development as quality of life. All of the processes of allocation and distribution of the spectrum respond to commercial logics. The white spaces of television and the digital dividend in principle would also respond to these logics. If this trend continues there will be an attempt to obtain resources so that the digital dividend generates income, and for those that operate in those frequencies to make the services widely available.
GP: Besides not thinking about it from the perspective of the needs of the population nor of development of all sectors (like education, culture, agriculture, health), e-government is still is very weak. It does not offer good service, and connectivity in some areas outside of the main cities is very low. Even the decision to move to digital television, fibre optics, the national broadband plan – it is all focused on economic growth and technological innovation that serves companies, but not capacities and freedoms.
APC: Is there the necessary context for innovative entrepreneurship with a social impact using the spectrum?
MA: There are entrepreneurs with small companies, mainly in rural areas and medium or small cities, that are offering internet access through wireless connections, using mainly 2.4 GHz WiFi antennas. They install towers and offer service to schools, institutions, public cabins, and generally to people who are in places where there is no other type of internet connection. Perhaps now mobiles are offering internet connection to some rural areas, but that is very recent and those other companies are already several years old. Those entrepreneurs resell the internet connection that they buy or rent from the large operators. That resale is not allowed, so these small businesses are informal. But they are there, and the telecommunications companies are looking the other way.
There is a more or less decentralised ‘know how’ because of the expansion of the public cabins. There is also a tradition of entrepreneurship in the rural cities. And there are mid-sized companies that offer this type of connectivity for private services and that is allowed. These are businesses that generally have a positive a social impact, and it is a sign that something good can happen there.
GP: Also what happens is that these initiatives end up being illegal, informal, and not widely spread because government policies are not aimed at local markets nor at the participation of small companies or grassroots and civil society organisations. And these limitations are such that there are no possibilities for these organisations to participate in the public auctions – because of a lack of capital, but also because there is no way to generate greater capacities, nor is any advising offered. These small companies also do not have the technical capacity or knowledge to develop further. It is interesting to see that these options exist, and it would be good to share that information and look for how to bring them together.
MA: There are some signs that the government could be changing some of the ways policy is made in this country, and perhaps that context can also be adapted to change the telecommunications policies.
APC: Do you consider the policies regarding the spectrum to be appropriate?
MA: In Peru the policies are developed mainly by the ministry of transport and communications and by the regulatory body, OSITEL. There is a very great weakness in civil society’s ability to participate in this in an organised way, and they have no institutionalised participation. It is worth noting that in some cases civil society organisations have been able to have an impact when they are organised. For example, in the case of the 2.4 GHz band, it was put out to concession and lobbying by civil society got it freed. The participation of civil society needs to be strengthened so that other things are put up for discussion, because the ministry always sets the terms of debate.
GP: What is clear is that when it comes to spectrum regulation policies, the government has not thought about designing long term and flexible policies. And at the same time they have been privileging giving the bands in concession to companies. This lack of participation and lack of research also generates a void in the formulation of policies, because there is no information to use to be able to participate. So the policies are not only going the way of the companies – who do participate actively – but they also copy international norms without discussing whether they are a good fit for the conditions of the Peruvian context or not.
APC: Do you consider that the conditions exist for the intervention of other actors?
GP: During the electoral campaign there was talk of creating an advisory council and involving civil society organisations so as to have more participatory decisions on the attribution of frequencies, but this idea did not receive attention because it is not a subject on the agenda. There have also not been signs of a law being formalised. It could be interesting to create an advisory council. Now there is no mechanism that allows for effective participation.
MA: In the report we recommended setting up a think tank focused on the spectrum that would allow for regular participation by civil society organisations in monitoring and auditing the use of the spectrum and for lobbying. Leadership is also needed. The Peruvian Scientific Network (Red Científica Peruana) used to take the lead on all of these subjects, but it turned more to the commercial side, leaving an empty space.
GP: At the level of governmental institutions there is the ability to ask for and access information. It is possible to be see what concessionaire has what frequencies, what ranks, for how long, and under what regulation. But in general these are broad legal frameworks, with their own technical language. An effort is needed to translate the information, make it more digestible, and present it to citizens and organisations that work with ICT in other ways that connect the issues of the spectrum, frequencies, political processes, and rights.
APC: Could your organisation participate in an audit process?
GP: This study in particular has sparked our interest in doing research and advocacy on telecommunications issues, particularly the issue of the spectrum, because CEPES has for several years been doing projects and studies on access to ICTs in rural areas. The knowledge that we have of technologies and their use gives us a strong vantage point because it gives us a sense of what the policies are, and what the needs are for engaging with initiatives that exist in the country. We would be thrilled to lead an initiative like this and connect with various organisations that we have contact with through different projects.
This was an interview of Maicu Alvarado and Gabriela Perona from CEPES, authors of the national report on Perú. This report is part of the APC initiative Open spectrum for development, which aims to improve knowledge of spectrum regulation through studies of the situation in Africa, Asia and Latin America. This project is part of the `Action Research Network’ initiative, financed by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada.
Photo by lu6fpj. Used with permission under Creative Commons license 2.0