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ISSUE 138: IS PHS MADE FOR AFRICA?

The two e-mails below came in response to our story on the PHP standard in issue 138. Benjamin Kowarsch of the Cellular Roaming Alliance argues that PHS is considerably more technically advanced, whilst Lorenzo Michaeletti of UTStarcom asserts that whilst it has adavanced capablities, it is its simplicity and low cost that will make it appropriate for Africa.

- YOU UNDERESTIMATED WHAT PHS CAN DO...

We have developed ZEBRA Roaming, an alternative roaming model which is based on the concept not to share revenue between operators, thereby avoid clearing, roaming risk and roaming charges, drastically reducing complexity and cost for operators and users in the process.

ZEBRA was initially developed for GSM and it integrates seamlessly into the GSM standard without any changes nor amendments necessary. However, ZEBRA can be applied to other wireless standards, including PHS, for which we are undertaking a project in Japan to bring international roaming to the Japanese. Initially this will be roaming between PHS networks in Japan and other PHS networks in Asia, but will be expanded to GSM/PHS roaming using UTStarcom’s upcoming GSM/PHS dual mode handset. I have read your article on UTStarcom’s efforts to promote PHS in Africa with interest, but there are a few things that create the wrong impression about PHS and I would like to provide you with some ideas and further information:

First, while not expressed literally, your article leads to the impression that PHS cannot offer roaming between various PHS networks. This is not the case. DDI Pocket, a PHS operator in Japan already offers international roaming service for visitors from FITEL, a PHS operator in Taiwan. The service is not based on ZEBRA and is a bit awkward to use, but it shows that it is possible to do international roaming with PHS.

As mentioned above, we are undertaking a PHS roaming project for Japan and other countries in Asia with PHS and we expect to have a service operational next year. What is of particular interest is the fact that PHS and ZEBRA roaming can deliver what is not viable with GSM nor CDMA: seamless roaming between house (domestic cordless), offices, shopping malls, airports, hotels (cordless hot spots), outdoors (public PHS and GSM) and overseas (GSM and PHS in some countries).

This would be too expensive and elaborate to do with GSM, because there is no license free spectrum for GSM to operate a private base station indoors at home or on company premises. As GSM does not have dynamic channel allocation, it would be very difficult to realise even if there was a political will to allocate license free spectrum.

For Africa this means that small communities could run their own PHS networks and allow visitors from other communities to roam. Over time, most of the inhabited areas would then have PHS coverage and a user could use their PHS phone everywhere within the covered area, nationwide or even Africa wide. Each of these grassroots networks could be owned locally, there would be no need for central ownership or centralised management. Every visitor from out of town using their PHS phone in-town would contribute to the viability of the local network. As PHS infrastructure is fairly cheap, such a grassroots approach would seem to be the ideal approach to get Africa up to speed and overcome the digital divide.

Another impression you gave is that PHS cannot be used while moving at speeds over 40 kph. This was a limitation only in the early days of PHS. Today, in Japan, PHS supports hand-off at speeds up to 120 kph. On the bullet train you can use PHS at 300 Kph for data service and though it cuts out most of the time, you will still get a throughput that is often better than what you get with most cellular data services. Besides, many countries are now putting legislation in place that outlaws telephony while driving. As long as messaging and data services are still working, not being able to use telephony while driving may actually be considered a safety feature rather than a lack of capability.

As far as data services are concerned, DDI Pocket in Japan is about to launch Advanced PHS service, which is based on SDMA and supports 1Mbit/sec, surpassing the abilities of 3G at a fraction of the cost. As Africa doesn’t have the money to roll out 3G, it would seem that PHS and Advanced PHS might actually give countries who stay away from 3G a technology lead in the longer term.

Benjamin Kowarsch
Cellular Roaming Alliance Pty Ltd

PHS HAS A COST ADVANTAGE IN AFRICAN CONTEXT

While I love (obviously!) the strong case you make for PHS as a leading edge standard, I believe that the specific African context calls for some clarifications. As you can imagine, I know well that PHS can do much more than simple telephony with communitywide mobility. But I felt that Balancing Act was interested in PHS for Africa, rather than PHS per se.

Not that Africa does not want the fancy new features, but the interview focused on what could be an affordable, baseline, low-cost implementation of PHS to help alleviate the chronic teledensity deficit that plagues so many African countries.

I believe the article made this fact very apparent, as it did not intend to offer a comprehensive, technically detailed, overview of all that is possible with PHS. Actually, I found the article well balanced and to the point: providing realistic (i.e. affordable) expectations to the African service providers is more important - today - than painting the picture of the latest and greatest enhancements to the basic PHS service set.

With respect, specifically, to some apparent inaccuracies you point out, let me briefly comment that:

- the 40Kmph speed limit is what UTStarcom officially supports. The fact that Fitel’s network is capable of better performance is due to above-average cell density, cell power (500mW radio ports) and the deployment of top-of-the-line, twin radio handsets. It’s not a baseline implementation of PHS: it’s the rich man’s PHS service, although still much cheaper than GSM.

- nationwide roaming is definitely possible, but it is not commonplace at all in low income countries, while seamless nationwide coverage (>85% of territory) is very rarely provided in a PHS market. International roaming is today limited only to the richest of PHS countries: Japan and Taiwan. Once again, affordability is going to be the key driver of teledensity growth in Africa, and research shows that nationwide coverage and roaming are lower a priority in the wish lists of these countries. Mr. Southwood’s wording in the article "Its (PHS) primary market is within town, cities or regions rather than between towns, cities and regions." is therefore to be considered, when referring to Africa, accurate.

- 3G like features were discussed extensively during the interview. I showed and demonstrated a J95/UT719 phone and we talked of the Japanese M- stage music, M- stage visual and V- Live services, all based on PHS. The whole PHS-to-3G migration effort at UTStarcom is being taken very seriously. But also in this case I consider these features as overkill in most African markets, where stable and reliable 32Kbps Internet connections at no extra cost are what it is neededto bridge the digital divide.

Lorenzo Micheletti
UTStarcom

- Chanda Peerthum-Woodum pointed out the ambiguity in our Namibiam second cellphone operator story. Was next year 2003 or 2004? It should have course have read this year and the year was therefore 2003. Several people have pointed out that Africa Online in Kenya was involved in the new consortium to compete with Jambonet through its involvement with UUNet.