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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 Colombia, presented reports on their national situation.

Lilian Chamorro of Colnodo, along with Ariel Barbosa, co-authored the national report on Colombia. APC spoke with Chamorro to discuss the findings.

APC: What do you see as the main opportunities and obstacles for the use of the spectrum to increase internet access in Colombia, particularly for social and community uses?

Lilián Chamorro (LC): The government is currently implementing the ‘Live digitally plan’ [‘Plan vive digital’]. Its main goal is to extend broadband coverage in the country. As part of this plan the fibre optic network is being extended and frequencies are being allocated, particularly for international mobile telecommunications (IMT) technologies.

The fibre optic network will offer internet connectivity to more than 700 municipalities in the country, which could then be leveraged to provide access in neighbouring municipalities or rural areas through wireless networks connected to the fibre optic backbone. In the bidding process conditions were defined so as to include free internet access in public institutions in benefiting municipalities. Nevertheless, other projects are needed for the new infrastructure to have greater social value through supporting local operators or other innovative approaches proposed by communities, which have not been considered in this project.

As far as the allocation of frequency bands for IMT, in recent years the government has held auctions for different portions of the spectrum that facilitated the entry of a new operator and allowed current operators to increase their capacity. A review is now being done of other frequency ranges that could be assigned in the next few years for 4G services, which includes the frequencies of the digital dividend (700 MHz). Mobile operators show great interest in access to this frequency and as such several studies have been done that show greater benefits in using this band for mobile data services than for television services. Yet these focus basically on IMT and there are no studies on the social and economic value of using this band for various wireless technologies like WiFi or WiMAX. There are also other bands, like 450 MHz, for which there are still no plans, at least in the short term, and which could be used for social and community uses given the possibility of transmission over long distances.

APC: Do you think that there are conditions in the country to operate – even experimentally – in what are called the ‘white spaces’ of television? Do you know of any cases where cognitive radio technologies have been used in Colombia?

LC: The subject of cognitive radio is only now being broached in the country, primarily at an academic level and in regards to inspecting and understanding the technology. Although there are groups that are carrying out research in this field, it appears that they are not yet in the experimentation phase. The same is true of television white spaces. It is a subject that had not been raised in Colombia, and only recently has there been talk of the possibility of using them and the need to do studies on the matter.

APC: To what extent do the processes of attribution and allocation of the spectrum respond to the needs of the population and to what extent are they guided by commercial logics?

LC: The situation is that the definition of the needs of the population has been left in the hands of the operators and service providers. The regulators and administrators of the spectrum assume that the operators know what the needs are, but the operators identify and address those needs that provide the greatest economic benefit. On the other hand, the lack of knowledge of the subject in civil society and the shortage of studies by community groups and academia to identify needs and close the digital gap results in a lack of participation from these sectors in the discussions on the attribution and allocation of the spectrum.

It should be recognised that the government has, in the processes of allocation of the spectrum, established a series of obligations that aim, among other things, to have those who access the spectrum take steps to expand the coverage of their networks.

APC: Do you think that Colombia has the necessary conditions for the generation of innovative entrepreneurial ventures that use the spectrum and have a positive social impact?

LC: In Colombia bands have been defined for open use that can be used to establish community networks, which has already happened in some areas. Regional projects are also being promoted whereby each region can present innovative proposals to promote the use of ICTs using local and state resources. Many of these projects have already offered connectivity using wireless networks over open bands and have interesting experiences that could be shared and promoted in other regions. The country is also in an interesting moment of redefinition of the spectrum management schemes that, if well taken advantage of, could allow for innovative initiatives for the management and use of this resource.

APC: Do you think that institutionalisation in Colombia is adequate in regards to the definition of policies, regulation and management of the spectrum? Do you think there are other actors who should join the discussions on the use of the spectrum in the country? Do you think that the conditions exist for this in Colombia? Why?

LC: The state structure for the management of the spectrum is relatively new, and it seems to me to have improved the climate for dialogue and promoted processes of modernisation. Nevertheless it still does not have the required levels of participation from either the social or the academic sphere. We see a marked absence of community media (networks/television/community radio), of civil society organisations, and even of certain sectors of academia. To achieve this greater outreach is required on the importance of the spectrum and its implications for technology development. There also needs to be a push for research by both academia and civil society on both the technical and the social and market aspects. This would open the way for sustained participation based on reliable studies and arguments. The operators have the trained personnel and resources to defend their positions. If there is no research done from other perspectives, an imbalance is generated in the decision-making.

APC: Do you think that the country meets the conditions necessary for carrying out an audit of the use of the spectrum? If so, do you think that Colnodo could participate in that process?

LC: The information regarding the allocation of the spectrum is not currently fully updated. The government is currently carrying out projects to clean up and complete this information. They are also in process of acquiring tools to facilitate the management of the spectrum. Given that, I am not sure about the possibility of doing an audit at the moment. On the other hand oversight of the processes of attribution and allocation that are being carried out is both viable and necessary. This is also true for the decisions that are being taken regarding the mechanisms for management of the spectrum. I would be interested in participating in this process along with other actors and organisations that are interested in the subject and can offer diverse points of view.

APC: Do you have any other comments on the Colombia report, or any particular part of it you want to highlight?

LC: It is important to emphasise that Colombia is migrating to a more flexible management model, so as to have more flexibility and speed in the processes of allocation and the most efficient use of the assigned spectrum. Nevertheless the aim should be for a balance, since it is clear that in Colombia, as in many countries, there are market problems, and too much flexibility in the allocation and administration of the spectrum could favour a minority. So it is necessary to maintain some of the control functions. It is also important, in this regard, to promote research on spectrum management, so as to propose innovative practices adapted to the local reality.

This was an interview of Lilian Chamorro, author along with Ariel Barbosa, of the national report on Colombia. 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.

See Colombia’s national report

See other reports and summary articles

Photo by woodleywonderworks. Used with permission under Creative Commons license 2.0