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Everyone can win

[By Duncan McLeod]

When broadcasters switch to digital television, a valuable chunk of radio frequency spectrum will be freed up for broadband. The country ought to have a debate now about how to use this spectrum to bring affordable Internet access to rural areas.

Vodacom Group CEO Pieter Uys floated an interesting idea this week. He told me in an interview that operators should pool their resources to build rural broadband networks in areas where it doesn’t make financial sense to duplicate infrastructure.

Uys was talking about the best way of providing access to the so-called “digital dividend” spectrum that will be freed up when SA ’s broadcasters migrate from analogue to digital terrestrial television.

Government has set a cut-off date of December 2013 for the completion of the migration. Though broadcasters are fretting privately that the deadline is too tight, now is the right time for government, the telecommunications industry and the sector regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa), to thrash out how this digital dividend should be used to maximise Internet penetration, especially in underserviced areas.

To explain the importance of the spectrum in question, it is necessary to get a little technical. The frequency band in question — around 800MHz — is ideally suited for providing large coverage zones around base stations. This makes it ideal for providing rural connectivity at lower cost. Higher frequencies, such as the 2,1GHz band used by MTN, Vodacom and others, are better suited for building dense metropolitan broadband networks with lots of towers.

By the time the 800MHz band becomes available, next-generation wireless broadband technology called long-term evolution (LTE) — it’s the successor to the third-generation mobile networks in use today — will be ready. Over time, LTE is promising access speeds well in excess of what’s available on copper-based fixed-line networks.

“The 800MHz band should be pooled and used jointly to build a network in, say, Putsonderwater, where you can’t build multiple networks,” says Uys. “The digital dividend is a scarce resource and it should be used in a way that benefits the whole country.”

Communications minister Roy Padayachie has made it one of his top priorities to bring broadband to rural areas. He’s keen for Sentech, the state-owned broadcasting signal distributor, to build a network that provides services in these areas. But Sentech has access to the 2,6GHz spectrum, a band that is far from ideal for that purpose.

Perhaps Icasa should consider taking back Sentech’s overly generous 50MHz allocation and making it available to commercial operators that are desperate to extend their metropolitan coverage, and giving the company access to part of the 800MHz band.

Uys’s suggestion that infrastructure be shared in rural areas makes sense, provided it’s done in a way that fosters competition. There are many models that can be adopted, but a network based on “open access principles”, where all licensed operators and Internet companies can provide services and compete on price, may help rather than hinder government’s objectives.

The ultimate goal must be to maximise competition. It’s only rigorous competition between commercial operators that will keep prices in check, driving up access and fostering innovation.

As Uys says, Icasa “shouldn’t experiment” with untested models. “It should develop a plan with input from regulators in the rest of the world, from suppliers and other experts, to say what is the best for SA in the long term based on the country’s goals.”

Now is the right time for a debate about how to achieve those goals. It’s just too important for the country’s development to screw it up.


  1. Just as a matter of interest, what is the spectrum between 800/900MHz and 2.1 GHz allocated to? It’s quite a chunk of spectrum… what could possibly be hogging all that spectrum?

  2. @Michael: The 900MHz band is fully allocated to mobile operators, who use it mainly for GSM voice (Cell C uses part of its for UMTS). I think the 2,1GHz band is also fully allocated to the mobiles for UMTS. 800MHz is currently used by the broadcasters but they are supposed to clear out of that band by December 2013.

  3. One has to be very cautious about taking the advice of SA’s largest telecommunications company about maximising the digital dividend. It is true that it is a scarce resource and must be carefully marshalled but regulators around the world have responded in lots of interesting ways and so there are lots of tested outcomes. DoC/ICASA could do much worse than looking at the way that the FCC did this see:http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2010/09/white-space_wireless.

    The development opportunity must be to introduce new operators surely? The propogation characteristics of 800MHz gives exactly the opportunity to be a low cost provider. A local phone exchange can be set up without ever having to leave the coverage of the cell – no need to go through another telco’s network. Sharing infrastructure is important though – but the important things to share are the space on Sentech’s towers and long haul fibre links to the main centres (plus a further reduction in inter-connect).

    @ Michael – the DoC is doing a spectrum audit, to the best of my knowledge, parts of the1.3-1.7GHz band with quite a bit of defence/SAPS presence will also be re-assigned with digital migration – it is also where GPS and sattelite radio works. The USA assigned this to a LTE operator. 1.9-2GHz is owned by Telkom and others for DECT and satellite tracking. There may be two 10MHz carriers on 2.1GHz (3G) left unassigned.

  4. Provide more 700MHz spectrum on

    My view is that 698-862MHz i.e. 164MHz should be set aside in Africa for IMT (like Region3 Asia) and Broadcasters should not be allowed to use spectrum above 700MHz in the new analog to digital TV migration process.
    Broadcasters still have 470-700MHz i.e. 230MHz and even more spectrum in VHF 174-254MHz for their one-directional transmit service. This will ensure low cost of equipment, terminals and devices for a common LTE wireless standard accross Africa if we follow the China and India spectrum model. This way one can REMOVE THE DIGITAL DIVIDE!!!!
    Share this spectrum between the 4 national cellular operators in SA to ensure enough competition and in rural areas build an combined open access network for all to share.
    Broadcasters should be forced to be more spectrum efficient. They have 15 TIMES MORE SPECTRUM THAN CELLULAR OPERATORS!!!

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