Spectrum split ‘must be bolder’, says Siemens


Regulatory bodies must make bolder decisions when allocating radio spectrum to cellular network operators to create a clearer path for evolution. Spectrum is fought over by cellular networks, television broadcasters, military and aeronautical users, and juggling their demands requires stronger regulation, says Siemens Communications vice-president Klaus Dieter Kohrt.

Cellular networks have been granted only 5% of the “sweet spot” of 300MHz to 10GHz frequencies, but if spectrum was allocated according to the money generated by its use, they would gain a far larger slice. Since radio waves do not recognise national borders, global agreements are essential for worldwide interoperability, says Kohrt.

“We can’t generate new spectrum so we need to optimise its use with co-ordination across geographic and political boundaries. Regulatory decisions in the next few years will affect the industry for many years to come.”

Yet regulators are increasingly reluctant to help guide the technology choices, and would rather let rival factions slug it out to determine which systems win. That is wasting vast sums of money as some technologies fall by the wayside, says Kohrt.

“Darwinian selection has its merits, but it has a lot of waste if you are not part of the winning team.

“Politicians believe free market competition will benefit end users, but neither politics nor economics can change the laws of physics.” Spectrum fragmentation has a very negative effect on the economy, he says.

Regulators should define a harmonised spectrum framework so the industry could channel its innovations towards those standards rather than come up with competing ideas.

Locally, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) is facing problems as new services increase the demand for spectrum. The cellular operators are exploring mobile television using two different technologies. Metropolitan authorities want spectrum to set up wireless networks offering their citizens Internet access and cheap internet-based telephony. “Every one of the major municipalities in SA has serious plans to get into the telecoms space,” says Mike Brierley, the CEO of MTN Network Solutions .

“That is about bringing internet services to the low end of the market. They haven’t been granted any spectrum yet but there’s a promise from the regulator they will get it.” Brierley doubts any one technology will emerge as a winner, so Icasa must allocate spectrum to variations that will co-exist for several years. Yet the mobile operators have had requests for extra spectrum refused, scuppering their plans to launch WiMax, a broadband technology that spans long distances.

Internet service providers are annoyed that they are not getting any spectrum to cover the “last mile” to deliver services to homes or offices. That spectrum would free them from leasing Telkom’s copper wire connections.

The telecoms industry will become competitive only if everyone is granted spectrum, Brierley says. “Telkom has more spectrum than anybody else. Icasa has been very generous with its allocation and Telkom has a lot of spectrum that is not used well. That has to be addressed.” Icasa is struggling with the scarce 2,6GHz frequency, which is unable to meet demand for digital television and broadband wireless internet hot spots.

Icasa is also juggling the 800MHz band, and may divide it between television and telecoms players. The new operator, Neotel, and small, black companies offering voice and data services in rural areas, also want access to that band.

Business Day