TO promote investments in Nigeria and other parts of Africa, availability of spectrum in a timely manner is a major task for telecoms sector regulators.
This will enable innovation and competition, as well as ensure fifth generation (5G) services benefit consumers, businesses and industries.
A report jointly published by Ericsson and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), titled: “Making 5G a Reality for Africa,” underscored the importance of timely availability of spectrum.
The report said: “Regulators will have to determine the process they’ll follow to ensure mobile data growth and early 5G deployment is not hampered by spectrum requirements.”
The fifth-generation technology is expected to set new standards for high-speed, wide bandwidth, low latency wireless connections. Mobile operators in South Africa are preparing for the rollout of 5G, but have for some time been saying 5G will not be possible without additional spectrum being allocated.
Ericsson sees massive mobile growth in sub-Saharan Africa over the next five years, with mobile subscriptions likely to exceed 900 million, total mobile data traffic growing by 11 times compared to today, and 75 million cellular Internet of things (IoT) devices being connected by 2023. This will be aided by the growth of 4G/long term evolution (LTE) and 5G deployments if more spectrum is allocated.
“Decisions on where, when and how operators deploy 5G are not only driven by commercial considerations but also on the availability of spectrum, network equipment and devices,” the report said.
The authors said modern mobile networks need a variety of spectrum, with different frequencies providing different key components.
Low frequency spectrum tends to offer better coverage, travelling distances and giving in-building coverage, at the expense of data rates (that is, speed). High frequency spectrum offers shorter coverage distances but substantially higher data rates.
The report expected that 5G will need a mix of low, medium and high frequency spectrum, some of which will be ‘new’ spectrum and some ‘re-farmed’ spectrum, previously used by other services or even shared with existing services.
As the use of spectrum is a global phenomenon, the spectrum bands available in Africa should not be different from that of other administrations, the report says, “as it would be expensive to use without the economies of scale for network equipment and device manufacturers that come from harmonised bands”.
Ericsson believes governments in Africa should support 700megahertz (MHz), 800MHz, 2.6gigahertz (GHz), 3.5GHz, 26GHz and 40GHz as 5G pioneer bands.
“The spectrum available for 5G will vary from market to market, according to whether it is already in use and the timing of auctions and licensing processes. Each spectrum band has different physical characteristics, which means there are trade-offs between capacity, coverage and latency, as well as reliability and spectral efficiency.”
Ericsson said these trade-offs needed to be taken into consideration when planning 5G deployments, especially with regard to the mobile network operators’ (MNOs’) service focus, whether this is enhanced mobile broadband, massive IoT, critical IoT or fixed wireless access.
Last month, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) confirmed plans to license high-demand radio frequency spectrum by the end of March 2019, which will likely be used first for 4G, and it’s still unclear as to when higher bands will be released with 5G in mind.
Although the report said 5G will need the release of new spectrum, it highlighted that it will also require the re-farming and/or re-use of current spectrum.
The report urged regulators to issue licences that are technology-neutral or unified licences, where MNOs can move one technology from a spectrum band and deploy a different technology, in that same band.
But the Vice President/Head of Networks for Ericsson Middle East and Africa (MEA), Chafic Traboulsi, said spectrum should not be linked to specific technology.
“In some countries, unfortunately, they link the frequencies to a specific technology. We believe it’s very important not to do this because it puts a barrier up right in the beginning,” Traboulsi said.
The Executive Vice Chairman, Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Prof Garb Dambatta, said spectrum licences in Nigeria are technology-neutral. This explains why telcos have been able to re-farm their previous spectrum for newer technologies such as LTE.
While the Chairman, Association of Licensed Telecoms Companies of Nigeria (ALTON), Gbenga Adebayo, has advised the regulator to revisit its technology-neutral licensing, the regulator appears not in a hurry to do so. Dambatta believes other African countries should adopt the model that makes spectrum not to be tied to a particular technology.
“With the adoption of 5G, MNOs will require an increased amount of spectrum and therefore it is important that a country develops spectrum policies that will enable the fast adoption of innovative technologies and sustainable development of the mobile industry. This will help to realise maximum benefit for its citizens, particularly those that are unconnected,” it added.