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Exploiting the Digital Dividend – an African approach

11 ноября 2011

The World Radiocommunications Conference 2012 (WRC-12) – a four-week marathon of spectrum policy – will be held in Geneva early next year. As African countries prepare, they should be asking themselves: how will we be investing our ‘Digital Dividend’?

Globally the broadband industry has moved on remarkably since the last WRC (in 2007), with superfast connectivity climbing up government agendas and mobile technologies becoming increasingly mature and user-friendly. Two features of African telecoms, in particular, have changed dramatically – and although not obvious, both have an impact on spectrum policy.

Firstly, international connectivity has increased by orders of magnitude. In 2007, there was just one submarine cable connecting sub-Saharan Africa to the global Internet, but now there are six. Wholesale prices have plummeted.

Secondly, terrestrial fibre providers have emerged to connect inland regions to the copious bandwidth now landing on Africa’s beaches.

So where is the next bottleneck for broadband in Africa?

Clearly challenges remain in a number of areas, ranging from market competitiveness to device affordability, lack of local content and low literacy levels. But there is one challenge that African policymakers can tackle now that will make a real long-term difference: to release as much sub-1GHz spectrum as they can to connect their citizens at true broadband speeds. The Digital Dividend is key to this.

Digital Dividend spectrum lies in the UHF band, in the frequency range 470–862MHz. Each UHF channel of 8MHz width was previously used to carry a single (analogue) TV channel, but with the migration to digital broadcasting one 8MHz channel can potentially carry 20 TV programmes. Once analogue broadcasting is turned off, therefore, it is feasible for a significant part of this 392MHz to be diverted away from broadcasting to other uses – including mobile broadband.

UHF spectrum has one particular characteristic that makes it far more valuable than spectrum above 1GHz: it propagates well over long distances and through barriers, and so provides better rural and deep indoor coverage.

The UHF band also happens to be the focus of intense harmonisation efforts around the world. Asia and the Americas have already taken steps to use 698–806MHz for mobile broadband (“the 700MHz band”). And following a 2009 study by Analysys Mason and others, European regulators agreed to set aside 790–862MHz (the “800MHz band”) for mobile use. Because Africa, like Europe, is in ITU Region 1, national spectrum authorities in Africa have largely been following this lead when deciding how to invest their Digital Dividend.

However given its poor wireline access infrastructure, Africa needs its own spectrum policy. The chart below illustrates that, relative to TV take-up, take-up of mobile services is far greater across Africa than in Europe, suggesting that the cost–benefit calculation may also lead to different conclusions from those reached in Europe. Analogue broadcast switchoff may not happen for another five or more years in most African countries, but given the vital importance of this spectrum there is a need to discuss policy options as soon as possible.

One option could be to allocate a ‘second sub-band’ to mobile broadband services. The first sub-band (the 800MHz band inherited from Europe’s initiatives) is in any case occupied by existing military or mobile telephony use in many African countries. Adding the 700MHz band to expand overall capacity could have numerous benefits, such as increasing the speed and coverage of mobile broadband and earning roaming revenues from American and Asian visitors to the continent. The first steps towards this have been taken by Africa’s WRC-12 delegates, who decided in July to try to identify more spectrum for broadband before WRC-15.

Evidence-based spectrum policy and regional co-ordination are critical; actions taken unilaterally by national regulators or without careful study are likely to be counter-productive. But with the right leadership and involvement of stakeholders, a second Digital Dividend could play a key role in unlocking Africa’s broadband future – and with it, billions of dollars of economic welfare.

Robert Schumann, Manager at Analysys Mason


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