While the delayed migration of analogue television and radio broadcasting signals to other spectrum bands is hampering the rollout of broadband telecommunications services, especially in rural areas, the licensing of the exclusive use of spectrum only by a single market player is preventing effective and efficient use of that high-demand spectrum to support modern telecommunications networks, public benefit organisation Free Market Foundation (FMF) information and communications technology specialist consultant Christoph Klein said on April 13.
The 700 MHz to 800 MHz band, currently used for analogue broadcasting, is the "digital dividend" band because it can allow efficient deployment of long-term evolution (LTE) broadband infrastructure and coverage across wide areas and in rural areas, where it is not feasible to deploy smaller cell technologies such as fifth-generation (5G) technology.
However, even if this band were to be licensed for use, it is considered "dirty" owing to interference caused by continuing analogue broadcasting in this band that has not yet been migrated to lower-frequency spectrum. This means that network operators will not roll out LTE infrastructure until digital migration is complete, he explained.
Not having this band available means that three times as much infrastructure is needed to provide the same coverage. This limits the ability of network operators to roll out infrastructure to provide the socioeconomic benefits the government aims to achieve with its spectrum policies, he said.
Separately, the 2.3 GHz, 2.6 GHz and 3.5 GHz bands are most suitable for high-throughput 5G and Internet of Things (IoT) uses serving many users in urban settings and will enable network operators to provide high-speed connectivity to the greatest number of users at the lowest cost.
However, these high-frequency bands have poor building penetration properties, but, when used in conjunction with other bands, such as the 700 MHz to 800 MHz bands, can provide superior connectivity and speed and user experiences.
To secure the greatest benefit to South Africans from high-speed broadband connectivity, network operators must be able to aggregate traffic and leverage the most appropriate bands of spectrum to transmit, said Klein.
"The current situation [of exclusive licences for spectrum bands] is anachronistic. About two out of every three towers in Africa are operated by independent tower operators and not network operators, and mobile network operators act more as technology aggregators than vertically integrated utilities. This trend of outsourcing and specialised service providers in the value chain will continue and reduce the cost of services."
The 2.3 GHz, 2.6 GHz and 3.5 GHz bands are crucial for IoT and 5G services, and automatically excluding network operators owing to their size is illogical if the aim is to provide better connectivity to the most people. Mobile penetration is not a problem in South Africa, where there are, on average, two phones per adult person and 98% of the country has cellular telephony coverage.
Additionally, about 70% to 75% of the market is served by two network operators, which are currently excluded from bidding for the important 700 MHz to 800 MHz band, and the higher frequency bands that are important for 5G and IoT.
Nowhere in the world is there a model in which companies with such extensive geographic footprints and market share are allocated such little spectrum. Achieving the greatest socioeconomic benefit from better connectivity is best achieved if the most people can access the network. This is most efficiently and effectively achieved through appropriate spectrum bands used together to efficiently carry appropriate traffic, which improves the efficiency of infrastructure and lowers costs for the end-users, he added.
"We need more fluid network infrastructure. This has important implications for the allocation of spectrum. Thus far, the regulator assigns spectrum on an exclusive use basis and the spectrum cannot be traded. In the future, we will need to allocate spectrum that can be shared among carriers to provide services and meet increasing demands for fast broadband connectivity.
"For consumers to reap the benefits of IoT and 5G, we need a more flexible regime for spectrum allocation, and the regulatory regime as experienced does not accommodate this, hampering the achievement of the socio-economic goals the regulations are designed to support," noted Klein.
FMF founder and president Leon Louw echoed these sentiments, noting that the FMF's socioeconomic impact assessment report, which is available on its website, has indicated that South Africa needs a more flexible spectrum policy and allocation, and that the resource - spectrum bands - need to be tradeable and shareable.
"Digital migration must be completed and all wavelengths must be made available; not to service providers per se, but for the benefit of consumers and the development of the country," he said.