Africa poised for 4G boom as 700 MHz goes global

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The most important decision so far from the ITU's World Radio Conference (WRC-15) is to move the 700 MHz band from a regionally to a globally harmonised allocation for mobile broadband.

The move was widely expected, but is significant nonetheless, setting the stage for global services - LTE or 5G - in the 694-790 MHz spectrum, and for major economic impact on LTE roll-out costs, in Africa in particular.

In 2007, it was allocated for this purpose in the Americas and Asia-Pacific (ITU Regions 2 and 3), but not in EMEA (Region 1). For Region 1, incorporating Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Africa, a decision at WRC-12 created the possibility of allocating the 700 MHz band after WRC-15 for mobile service.

However, this high level allocation does not lead magically to the economies of scale which would accompany a virgin global band. North American operators have already deployed LTE in 700 MHz, but with a fragmented band plan which is very different from those elsewhere, creating problems for handset uniformity, and roaming, within US borders, let alone internationally.

And the GSMA, which represents mobile operators, is not satisfied just with this spectrum, but wants the ITU to open up the sub-700 MHz band (470-694 MHz) for cellular use also. This spectrum, with its excellent range and indoor penetration, would provide a valuable coverage band for the machine-to-machine services which will be a bedrock of 5G business cases. 

The 700 MHz decision, then, is something of a tidying-up exercise, since many countries are already allocating the frequencies and even deploying networks. In the Americas and many Asia-Pacific nations, 700 MHz was the first digital dividend spectrum to be repurposed from broadcast to mobile broadband use. Outside north America, most regulators have adopted a fairly harmonized band plan known as AP700 (driven from Asia-Pacific but also supported by most Latin American administrations).

In the EMEA region, 800 MHz was the first digital dividend and has been widely harnessed for LTE deployments or plans, with 700 MHz providing a second dividend. This region is divided on whether to follow the AP700 plan - most operators and regulators would like to get as close to it as possible, to maximize economic efficiencies and global roaming, but many will be unable to follow it completely, because of interference issues with other services.

Some countries are going ahead with 700 MHz auctions even though the frequencies will not usually be freed up until near the end of the decade, and even without full clarity on the band plans. Germany was the first European country to sell this spectrum, and France followed suit, concluding its auction last week.

The ITU said its latest decision would not harm other sectors, despite lobbying from broadcasters and aeronautical navigation agencies.

ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao said in a statement: "The WRC-15 decision represents a landmark in the development of broadband mobile on a worldwide scale, regardless of location, network or terminal used. It goes a long way in enabling bridging of the digital divide, while fully protecting the other services currently operated in the band."

The provisions adopted by the ITU include protections for broadcasting and aircraft navigation systems.

François Rancy, Director of the ITU Radiocommunication Bureau, added: "The global harmonization of the 694-790 MHz frequency band that has been decided by WRC-15 paves the way for manufacturers and mobile operators to offer mobile broadband at an affordable price in currently underserved areas."

The biggest impact of global 700 MHz is likely to be in Africa. In Europe, the 700 MHz spectrum is likely to be incremental to many carriers' business cases, whereas in Africa, it will often be central to delivering broadband on an unprecedented scale, with the social and economic impact that delivers. There are signs of a coming mobile broadband boom in parts of this diverse continent - a report from the GSMA earlier this year forecast that the number of unique mobile subscribers in sub-Saharan Africa will pass the 500m mark in 2020.

Africa delegations surprised everyone at the WRC-12 conference by getting the ITU to agree that the 700 MHz band could also become a second digital dividend in Region 1 after WRC-15. In September 2014, a meeting of the ITU and the African Telecommunications Union (ATU), saw Africa become the first region in the world to come up with a harmonized band plan for both the digital dividend bands. The September meeting resulting in a coordinated mechanism for the dividend agreed by 47 sub-Saharan African countries. The consolidation of national plans conforms with the regulations originally set out in 2006 at the ITU's Regional Radiocommunication Conference (RRC-06), and with international switchover deadlines of June 2015 (for UHF) and June 2020 (for VHF in 33 countries).

Aims of digital inclusion and new services would be further supported by adding the sub-700 MHz band, argued GSMA chief regulatory officer, John Giusti. He denied that the Association is ignoring the needs of broadcasters, proposing that mobile broadband should gain a co-primary allocation, and employ the latest technology to enable harmonious sharing.

 Speaking in Geneva, where the WRC is taking place, he said: "Today, the UHF band is lightly used for terrestrial broadcasting in many countries. By implementing the latest technologies, these legacy services could be maintained in a smaller amount of spectrum, maximizing the use of this valuable spectrum resource by allowing both mobile and broadcasting below 700 MHz."

He continued: "Adding a co-primary allocation in the sub-700 MHz band at WRC-15 would offer governments the flexibility to meet the changing needs of their citizens, who are increasingly accessing video content via 'second screen' mobile and tablet devices, and expand the well-established socioeconomic benefits generated by mobile broadband. There is no evidence that the existence of a co-primary allocation to mobile has had a negative impact on broadcast investment."

He said that, if no change is introduced in this band, it "would likely not be until at least 2023 before governments could revisit allocations in the sub-700 MHz band, with a further 5-10 years before it would reach the public in the form of new and innovative services."

WRC-15 runs from November 2 to November 27. While specific allocations for 5G are the remit of its successor, WRC-19, some pointers towards future spectrum policies are expected to emerge. However, some operators are likely to use frequencies, including those in 700 MHz, which are part of the current program, for new networks including specific M2M/IoT systems, and/or 5G.

Many carriers believe the propagation qualities of the 700 MHz band will be well suited to low power M2M applications, for instance in smart cities, especially as they may have achieved sufficient coverage for conventional LTE data and voice applications with existing 800 MHz assets, and are turning to higher frequencies, such as 2.6 GHz, to add capacity for consumer services.

Paired with evolving, ultra-low power variants of LTE (NB-IoT and LTE-MTC), some MNOs, especially in Europe, say they will be able to use 700 MHz frequencies to compete with specialized smart city networks such as LoRa and Sigfox. These would-be standards are gaining ground in the absence of an M2M-optimised LTE option, but they have the disadvantage of operating mainly in licence-exempt spectrum (the 868 MHz band in Europe), which has security and reliability implications for mission critical functions.

Qualcomm and others have made proposals to the 3GPP and to regulators to earmark a 2×3 MHz sub-section in the 700 MHz band, specifically for M2M and NB-IoT use. They believe that would help 4G operators be competitive in M2M markets such as smart cities, but others - including many carriers - want all spectrum to be usage-neutral and to have the freedom to deploy whatever seems most appropriate.

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