Let's get spectrum right: It's time to start making use of TV white spaces

NAIROBI, Kenya, oct. 3

The use and management of spectrum was raised repeatedly during last week’s Internet Governance Forum in Nairobi, where many development researchers saw the possibilities afforded by digital migration and TV white spaces as an exciting opportunity for bridging the access gap.

At APC’s workshop dedicated to spectrum for development on September 29 the following recommendations were made:

  • Regulators and other stakeholders should prepare for digital migration and actively ensure that the digital dividend is utilised for increasing access and reducing prices.
  • There is no need to wait for digital migration to make experimental use of television white space spectrum. Regulators can issue experimental licenses now to operators to use this spectrum to provide internet connectivity in places where it does not exist, especially rural areas.
  • Spectrum belongs to everyone, and therefore a much wider group of people should become involved in its management and use.

These and other issues raised at the IGF will be discussed in greater depth at a one-day TV white spaces workshop convened by Google, the Open Spectrum Alliance and APC to be held on 5 October in Johannesburg.

It is crucial that we get spectrum rightWe must not miss this opportunity to enhance affordable access for all.  

The looming migration from analog to digital television presents some interesting possibilities for development. Whereas earlier wireless technologies had to effectively “shout” at relatively deaf receivers, now the technology is much more sensitive. As more and more countries make the switch to digital broadcasting, the resulting frequency efficiencies offers what is often described as the “digital dividend”. The ever-increasing importance of wireless technologies, especially for bringing high speed connectivity to rural areas, means that this dividend is a unique opportunity for bringing affordable access to citizens of developing countries.

Although this kind of “digital dividend” seems like a clear windfall, director of Village Telco Steve Song cautioned at the workshop that “spectrum is elastic, but not infinite.” There are finite limits to how much data can be packed into a certain bandwidth, and bad decisions around spectrum management could have profound consequences. Worse, such mismanagement is difficult to reverse.

The current spectrum regime leaves much to be desired. Large swaths of bandwidth are typically auctioned out to the major telecommunications companies, without much consideration for the long-term, or for the public benefit. Short-sighted policy-makers, coupled with monopolistic telco markets means that much of the available spectrum is used inefficiently, or not at all.

As Sascha Meinrath of the New America Foundation described it: “We have analog regulations for a digital world.”

He argued that the current broadcast business model is outdated and foregoes the opportunities presented by “smart”, adaptive technologies. Rather than focus on exclusive licensing, he advocated a much richer ecosystem for spectrum management, one that includes a diversity of approaches to meet diverse needs. Instead of merely following the US model, regulations should be contextualised and adapted to local circumstances.

Added to this digital dividend is the potential of TV white spaces the unused airwaves from television channels which do not broadcast in certain regions. This excess spectrum could be harnessed — right now — to bring affordable access to millions.

In preparation for the Internet Governance Forum in Nairobi, APC published an issue paper on spectrum for development, which outlined the following priorities:

  • Make more spectrum available. Current spectrum allocation gives clear preference to incumbent telecommunications companies, reducing competition.
  • Strengthen regulatory bodies. Regulators, particularly in developing countries, need more resources in order to address issues effectively and in a timely fashion.
  • Get allocation auctions right. Poorly conducted spectrum allocations can carry significant costs to both consumers and regulators and are difficult and costly to reverse.

As the potential for spectrum to support development becomes clear, there is a growing movement to treat spectrum as a public resource, and not only a marketable commodity. However, as Steve Song points out, not only is it critical that we get spectrum policy right, but we should learn to be humble in our approach, as experience has proven that predicting the future of wireless technologies is extraordinarily difficult.

Since many of the challenges we face around spectrum are the consequence of those poor predictions, we should be wary of making any decisions that could lock future generations into an inefficient system of spectrum allocation. Instead, our focus should be on ensuring that spectrum is made widely available, so that its benefits can be realized by the many and not the few.

Read more about open spectrum for development and what APC is working on.

The Association for Progressive Communications (APC) is an international network and non-profit organisation founded in 1990 that wants everyone to have access to a free and open internet to improve lives and create a more just world. www.apc.org