Subject to further study and agreement, the 700MHz band has recently been allocated to mobile broadband in Africa, Europe and the Middle East from 2015. While this has the potential to accelerate deployment of high-speed broadband and is a welcome development for broadband enthusiasts, we shouldn’t forget that brakes (in the form of slow digital switchover) are being applied at the same time.
So what has actually happened? The World Radiocommunications Congress (WRC-12), which took place in Geneva in January and February 2012, surprised many observers by agreeing to allocate the frequencies 694–790MHz to mobile use in Region 1 (Europe, the Middle East and Africa). Regions 2 and 3 (roughly the Americas and Asia–Pacific) had already (at the last WRC in 2007) agreed to include mobile as a primary allocation almost all the way from 600MHz up to 960MHz, while at that stage Region 1 set the lower bound at 790MHz – below that, only broadcasting was permitted.
Apart from simply more spectrum for broadband (2×45MHz if the Asia Pacific Telecommunity band plan is used – see Figure 1), the significance of this latest decision is that it paves the way to a near-global use of harmonised spectrum in the 700MHz band. As with the global use of GSM 900MHz spectrum, this is likely to lead to lower prices and improved portability of devices between regions.
Figure 1: Band plans used in digital dividend spectrum around the world, and a possible way of incorporating various band plans in Africa [Source: Analysys Mason, 2012]
The allocation of 700MHz in Region 1 had not been on the agenda for WRC-12, and was expected to be a key item at the WRC in 2015. But a push by the Arab and African groups led to it being included this time, reflecting a new-found confidence among these regulators – as also exemplified by the appointment of Bashir Gwandu from the Nigerian Communications Commission as Chair of the ITU’s influential Radio Advisory Group. Unusually, the allocation was made via an ITU resolution rather than in the frequency allocation table, reflecting the late inclusion. Admittedly the 700MHz agreement was not final – WRC-15 will have to revisit it, following technical studies – and it also only takes effect from 2015, but the agreement remains significant.
It might be expected that the second digital dividend would have a particularly beneficial impact in Africa, given the absence of fixed broadband infrastructure that many of Africa’s Region 1 compatriots use to deliver 20Mbit/s speeds to users. The 800MHz band plan adopted in Europe is also not fully available in over half of African countries because of existing CDMA assignments in the 825–850MHz range. In those countries, therefore, the ‘second’ digital dividend may actually be the first they can really take advantage of.
However, discussions at recent conferences in Africa (notably the ATU summit in November 2011, and the Digital Broadcasting Switchover Forum in February 2012) suggest that the majority of African countries will struggle to make the analogue TV switch-off deadline of June 2015, with planning still at an early stage in many countries. Many stakeholders remain paralysed by the financial challenge of switchover: tens or hundreds of millions of dollars may be required, in broadcasting sectors that are largely non-commercial and often dominated by the state.
Even economically advanced South Africa is making slow progress, and judging by its December 2011 publications on high-demand spectrum its policymakers have not yet considered the possibility of the 700MHz band becoming available in the medium term.
African governments may have to begin considering creative approaches to the digital switchover and the digital dividend. In principle it is possible to release digital dividend spectrum before completing the switchover of digital TV, and this and similar initiatives to release value early may help with the funding of digital roll-out. Policymakers will need to pay particular attention to the important role that liberalisation of the broadcast sector can play in promoting switchover. From an African perspective, the WRC-12 decision has got the process moving in the right direction, but it remains to be seen whether more weight is applied to brakes or accelerators on the road to 2015
Analysys Mason has worked for policymakers on digital switchover in a number of countries around the world, and is currently advising regulators and operators on spectrum policy issues in several countries in Africa. To find out how Analysys Mason can help you, contact Robert Schumann (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Janette Stewart (email@example.com).