What's new on the spectrum? “We need more tools in the spectrum briefcase”: Discussing approaches to access with Mike Jensen

Image: An early wireless card and home-made antenna made by Mike Jensen.

By APCNews 20 November 2018

Our third interview in the spectrum series features APC's internet access specialist Mike Jensen

Mike has a 30-year history of establishing communications systems in over 45 developing countries. An Internet Hall of Fame inductee, he has been at the forefront of network connectivity since “the very start”. Mike co-founded "The Web", an internet service provider for the non-profit sector, which became one of the founding members of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) where he works today. With diverse experience in policy, research, advocacy and capacity building, Mike is a jack of all trades, with a wealth of knowledge on both spectrum issues and the intricacies of connectivity projects in general. 

In a conversation with APCNews, Mike elaborated on the need for “more tools in the spectrum briefcase”, the challenges of changing restrictive regulation and the other key factors to developing connectivity beyond access to spectrum.

APCNews: Can you briefly describe the projects you’re currently working on and how trends in spectrum use factor into them?

Mike Jensen: My work isn’t really focused on the spectrum per se, but more on providing connectivity, so spectrum is one of the tools we use. One of the aspects I’m currently researching is local community-based connectivity initiatives, most of which use the licence-exempt "Wi-Fi" 2.4 and 5.8 GHz bands or, in a few cases, licensed GSM spectrum. When we first started using "Wi-Fi" 2.4 GHz-based wireless networking, the speed was only about 2 Mbps, so speeds have increased dramatically, as has experience with antenna design to maximise range. Similarly, higher band (5.8 GHz) spectrum use has increased significantly. Those two frequency bands have become very popular for this kind of local community network because the ITU [International Telecommunication Union] has declared those bands as being unlicensed or licence-exempt. This means a) you don’t have to pay any money to use them and b) you don’t have to go through an extensive licensing procedure. Now, that doesn't mean to say that you might not need a communications licence, and also some countries actually don't follow the ITU recommendations and continue to require a licence fee for use of these bands. It depends a little bit on the country but, by and large, most of the community networks are basing their connectivity around using those two frequencies because they’re the unlicensed ones.

APCNews: If spectrum is just one of many tools, why is there a particular emphasis on spectrum allocation and sharing right now? 

MJ: The problem right now is that we need more tools in the spectrum briefcase as it were, so that’s why you’ll hear a lot of emphasis and interest in spectrum. Both of the Wi-Fi 2.4 and 5.8 GHz frequency bands are what we call line-of-sight technologies, so over about 50 or 100 metres, the signal strength is strong enough to go through a couple of walls or a certain amount of foliage, but once you get beyond about 200 metres, the signal strength is so low that the devices on the two ends of the link actually have to be able to physically see each other. That restricts the technology and increases the costs. For example, if you want to connect to a village that’s 70 kilometres away and the countryside is flat, you’re going to have to erect a very tall and expensive tower, and if it’s hilly or mountainous, then you may have to have some intermediary hops along the way to keep the line-of-sight connection. That is why you’ll hear a lot of push from local connectivity advocates around getting access to lower frequency bands which don’t require the line of sight. These bands can go straight through foliage, mountains and buildings. For example, TV white space uses unused frequencies in the TV band which are in those lower ranges. Some projects also use mobile bands, which are also in the lower frequencies, usually between 900 and 2100 MHz. However, in those frequencies, in many cases we are basically tied up by the mobile operators who have usually been allocated most of the spectrum. 

APCNews: Do you see spectrum sharing and usage as playing an important role in facilitating universal access? Are there more relevant technologies or approaches being developed?
MJ:
Yes, spectrum sharing and smart spectrum management are the way forward everywhere. Making use of software-defined radios and spectrum sensing, combined with secondary use provisions, allows much more efficient and equitable management of the spectrum resource.

You may have heard of Rhizomatica doing work in that area because there was some free spectrum set aside for indigenous groups and the government had a regulatory procedure that allowed them to get a licence for very low cost. That’s a very unusual case, so most of the push in the rest of the world has been to emulate that strategy and make available some of those wave bands at lower cost so that we can use non-line-of-sight technology and also traditional cellular technologies which obviously has the attraction that most people already have low-cost cellular devices.

APCNews: In terms of quality of connection, is it similar if you’re using TV white space vs. 2.4 or 5.8 GHz?

MJ: The more you get into radio wave propagation, the more of a complicated, "black art" it becomes. It depends an awful lot on your antenna design, and people working on radio transmission are still coming up with new antenna design a hundred years after the technology was first identified. The basic principle is the higher the frequency, the more data it can carry but over a lower range, so that’s why you’ll see, for example, HF radio being used for very low bit-rate communications. Rhizomatica has set up an HF radio link in a very low frequency band, below 200 MHz, which allows them to move text messages from one base station to another base station, but they can do that over hundreds and hundreds of kilometres because HF radio frequencies can circle the earth. That won’t really be sufficient for high quality or multiple voice conversations or video – you would have to move into the higher bands for that. In general, it depends on the propagation which is also affected by the characteristics of the topography around you. Something might absorb the signal, there may be interference or reflective surfaces that create some timing problems for the receiver, making it difficult to predict the performance of a particular wireless link in the absence of an on-site survey.

APCNews: Obviously, a lot of technical skill and the ability to effectively assess the environment are required to develop these kinds of connectivity initiatives. How do you help local communities start that process?

MJ: An important aspect is building the capacity of the people on the ground to figure out how to get a link from point A to point B at the lowest possible cost. That might also require some assistance with lobbying the government to help subsidise the cost or to make the frequency available. For example, we have a particular problem in India right now where the mobile operators are not keen on providing any more licence-exempt spectrum as a means of holding onto their franchise in the mobile market. They’ve managed to successfully lobby the regulators not to renew any TV white space trial licences and the regulator has stated that they won’t be providing any more licence-exempt spectrum. From now on, it seems they will be allocating spectrum through an auction process which obviously suits the deep pockets of the big mobile operators.

APCNews: How can this issue be addressed if big mobile operators will always have this huge financial advantage? In your mind, does there have to be some kind of international ethical pressure to see access to spectrum as a rights-based issue?

MJ: Tricky question. At this point, what we’ve been doing a lot is working with individual regulators and regional regulation bodies to raise their awareness of these issues, and in Africa and in Latin America, they’ve been quite receptive. We haven’t had as much success in Asia, but we haven’t been doing as much work there and it’s also a much more diverse environment. So, for example, CITEL is the regional regulatory body in Latin America and there’s a similar one in southern Africa called CRASA and others in East Africa and West Africa, and we’ve had workshops with them, bringing together the national regulators, and they’ve been very open to new strategies for connecting the unconnected. As to whether they will actually implement something, it probably requires further work on the ground because, usually, the regulators still pay most attention to big mobile operators who have paid them huge licence fees. There is quite a lot of work going on at the ITU and other regional organisations to build awareness around this, and it’s looking quite optimistic at this point. These processes take a long time, but we’re seeing some holes now that make it look possible to move ahead. Obviously, it’s much slower than we’d like it to be, but at least there’s been some progress.

APCNews: You say this is an optimistic moment. Now that the issue of more equitable spectrum access is finally getting more traction, do you foresee the local connectivity movement gaining more momentum?

MJ: Access to spectrum is a bit more complicated in the sense that it’s also bound up with general licencing issues. Okay, so we may be able to get access to spectrum, but if a small-scale operator still has to conform to some national licensing process which involves paying a big fee and having to report every month on your users, this can be quite a bureaucratic process. In a number of countries, operators have whole teams of people employed specifically for reporting to the government about their activities. And these kinds of burdens are going to remain even if we open up access to spectrum, so we need to bear that in mind. Unfortunately, most national licensing frameworks are oriented toward these national-level operators, so they don’t have a licence at a village level that would cost a lot less and be less onerous in terms of what’s required for reporting. They may also give you access to the spectrum or the licence, but it may cost too much for a small-scale operator. So, opening up the spectrum is just one side of the coin. There’s also another big big issue that we have to deal with aside from the spectrum licensing issue, which is around the sharing of infrastructure. This is particularly important in remote and rural areas where the cost of backhaul to get connected to the rest of the internet or the rest of the phone network can be the biggest cost component of the entire operation. In many rural areas, the infrastructure does not exist because people aren't sharing the cost of building it out there. 

APCNews: So then, how should these projects be funded? Should they be seen as a public service and receive government support, or do you think it’s better to prioritise a market-based approach?

MJ: It all depends on how the cookie is cut. There are areas that require subsidised communications, so, for example, universal service funds will foot the cost of building a mast in a remote area and then cover some of the ongoing operational costs depending on the model. But those costs are quite high if there’s no sharing going on, meaning these operators will continue to require subsidies to maintain their services. On the other hand, if there was good infrastructure sharing taking place then a market-based solution would extend further out. But at this point, leaving it purely up to market forces, you’re going to leave people out at the edge of the network. If the market is cleverly designed so the dominant operators are reined in and all operators’ costs are reduced through infrastructure sharing, then you can move out that area of market-based service provision further, but there will always be people on the periphery who will require some kind of governmental support.

APCNews: Moving forward, what do you think should be the top priority for spectrum issues, i.e. better policies, infrastructure, awareness, etc.? Why?

MJ: We need better access to unused spectrum in order to help ensure that the half the world’s population that continue to be offline don’t remain cut off. This involves raising awareness with policy makers and regulators of the advantages and benefits of this approach.

Read the other interviews in the "What's new on the spectrum?" series with Carlos Afonso from Nupef, Peter Bloom from Rhizomatica, and Senior Mozilla Fellow Steve Song and Carlos Rey-Moreno of APC.



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