Publisher: APCNews CALGARY, 20 October 2011
Between 2010 and 2011, Nigeria experienced a 400% increase in mobile internet users and Sudan 300%. In Zimbabwe there was a staggering 4,500% growth. Facebook and Google vie as the most frequently visited sites on African mobiles. In developing countries people value mobile communications so much that they are willing to spend a disproportionate amount of their income on mobile services.
This expansion is happening despite the fact that access is not ubiquitous. Access in developing countries is mostly restricted to large urban areas and does not reach poorer rural areas that are less economically attractive to most operators. The copper infrastructure to cover this so-called “last mile” is expensive (especially in sparsely populated areas). 3G services have very limited coverage in rural areas and satellite internet is too costly for the poor.
A new issue paper by South Africa-based ICT expert Steve Song for APC explains explains how wirless is crucial to brdiging the digital divide. This article summarises some of the key points of his paper which is available for download.
Wireless technology relies on the transmission of radio waves. These radio sound waves can interfere with each other if they overlap on frequencies. There would be no need to restrict the use of specific radio frequencies if it wasn’t for interference, and while it used to be easily solved (large amounts of available spectrum, and small demand) there is now more demand than ever for spectrum. Much of it was used to prevent interference, but as Song explains, interference is not as much of an issue any more.
Song likens interference to a cocktail party, where here is a cacophony of sound yet we are able to focus in on the words of a single speaker. Allocating spectrum would be the equivalent of giving a private room to each conversation, and spectrum being used in the same geographic reason would be allocated to different, individual bands.
With television, in order to avoid interference, regulators established “no-man’s lands” between television channels. Broadband transmitters had to “shout” because the reception devices were a bit “deaf” and these gaps were created order to cope with the “loud” services and act as “guard” bands to prevent the television signals from interfering with each together. Known as “white spaces” on account of the white noise signal, these are the bands that we see between channels on an analogue television. But technology has improved and digital signals can operate well within the bands without overlapping to the guard bands.
The myth of spectrum scarcity
However with the explosion in demand for wireless spectrum in the past fifteen years spectrum has gone from an abundant to an apparently scarce resource.
ﾓBut is it truly scarce?ﾔ Song asks. ﾓIt is certainly true that demand currently exceeds supply but there is debate as to the nature of the scarcity and that debate is rooted in the nature of what spectrum is and how, as a result, it should be treated.ﾔ
And while every country has sovereignty over how spectrum is used within its borders, wireless communications does not respect frontiers and therefore has to be harmonised and international standards need to be set.
Wireless as the solution to affordable internet access
WiFi has gone from hobby technology to ubiquitous technology in little more than 20 years, says Song. “As technology development cycles get shorter and shorter, our ability to predict the evolution of technology also shrinks. The challenge of modern spectrum management is to develop regulations that can accommodate the present and the unknown future,” Song writes.
Creating cost-effective technologies that facilitate access for all will have a positive and economic impact in developing countries. “We know that wireless technologies hold the key to the last mile,” states Song.
Spectrum auctions, where “chunks” of spectrum frequencies are sold to the highest bidder have allowed for such innovation to take place. While a badly-run auction can mean that spectrum ends up in the hands of those who are willing and able to afford it rather than those who value it most, it is also a great system to spark innovation, when done properly.
“Not only can a badly-run auction result in spectrum not going to the entity that values it most, but it can lead to endless court challenges to the auction process, thereby tying results up in litigation such that no one benefits,” he explains.
Song expects a large amount of spectrum to be freed in upcoming years as Africa switches from analogue TV to digital broadcasting ie the so-called “digital dividend”. Unused TV white spaces present a great opportunity to increase mobile and fixed broadband services. A large portion of spectrum will be given to next generation mobile and service provision, as some of it has already been targeted by the ITU, the international body that sets telecommunications standards, for mobile use.
However it has not been determined what will happen to the rest of the spectrum. “In general there has been little public input in the debate around use of the digital dividend. It has largely been a tug of war between mobile operators and broadcasters. There is a need for public debate to ensure that digital dividend spectrum is used to serve those for whom access is still a challenge,” warns Song.
A few other barriers remain
The limited amount of spectrum that has been available for mobile services has meant there isn’t much competition for telecoms operators and that prices remain unnecessarily high. If more spectrum is made available, this will create more competition and in turn, healthier markets and lower prices.
Many developing countries also lack people and staff with the expertise needed to deal with the rapidly-evolving technology and policy environment. This means that policy cannot be developed fast enough to cope with the changes, and since incumbent telecommunications companies can invest considerable resources and expertise, they hold a strong lobby that helps them maintain the status quo.
Policy reform is only part of the solution
As wireless technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, we see more and more ways in which spectrum can be shared. Location, time, proximity, power-output and orientation all affect access to wireless spectrum, and sosspectrum policy reform is only part of the solution to affordable access in developing countries.
“Real access is a complex, multi-dimensional issue that requires an enabling environment, end-user capacity to make effective use of services, a healthy business environment for both infrastructure and services as well as political leadership,” concludes Song.
Song says that because it is often not clear to what extent spectrum regulation actually has a direct impact on affordability and ubiquity, it has largely been overlooked.
At a time where demand for access is increasing at dramatically high speed in the developing world, “active policy engagement on spectrum management and regulation has the potential to stimulate competition and facilitate the arrival of affordable broadband technologies that would lead to equality of access for all.”
This article was written based on the APC issue paper Spectrum for development: The impact of access and the role of wireless technologies, written by Steve Song. The article is part of the APC’s work on open spectrum for development, as part of the Action Research Network which is supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).