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Interview: Dynamic Spectrum Alliance President Martha Suarez

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The demand for Internet access continues to surge across Africa and spectrum management is a key focus for regulators and governments in the region and globally.

The Dynamic Spectrum Alliance (DSA) is a non-profit organization focused on promoting spectrum-sharing innovation to get the most out of wireless resources.

Connecting Africa Editor Paula Gilbert sat down with DSA President Martha Suarez for an in-depth discussion on efficient and effective spectrum utilization as a way to speed up digital inclusion and help connect Africa's unconnected.

Paula Gilbert (PG): What does the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance do globally and in Africa, specifically, what kind of projects are you running?

Martha Suarez (MS): The DSA promotes flexible frameworks, regulations and laws that are looking for more efficient use of the spectrum. We think that that is important because it's a way to get more people connected and also to foster innovation.

With traditional methods for spectrum management, we already know the results – there are many people that are still unconnected. So, we think that if we have more flexible frameworks, it will be possible to have a larger ecosystem, with more technologies operating, more competition, and then also promote investment and have better connectivity.

Spectrum sharing is something that could be applied to different technologies – it's not only for one type of technology. I would say everything started a few years ago in terms of dynamic spectrum access with TV white spaces. That technology was one of the first systems where you had dynamic spectrum access and spectrum sharing between broadcasters and TV white space devices that were able to access spectrum and to provide broadband Internet access, at affordable prices.

DSA also promotes more spectrum for unlicensed access and that is more spectrum for Wi-Fi. But there are many other technologies that use unlicensed spectrum.

It has been many years without new spectrum for Wi-Fi. That is something that is used by billions of people and we need more spectrum for Wi-Fi. So DSA is advocating for additional spectrum in the 6GHz band. But we think that you could also have spectrum sharing for mobile networks.

PG: I think a lot of people don't really understand the concept of spectrum so can you break it down for the man on the street? How does it work and who controls spectrum access?

MS: For those that are not familiar with spectrum, you can imagine spectrum as a big highway that is invisible. Through that highway we have different lanes, and every lane is used by a different service. Traditionally we have one lane for mobile, one for fixed, one for fixed satellite service etc. and there are 41 lanes. So, the first job for those that work on spectrum management is deciding which band is used by which service.

Once we have a lane, let's take the example of broadcast. You divide that into channels, and you say, one channel for one provider, another channel for another provider, and that's how it is organized. That is the traditional way of having spectrum access. It's what we call an exclusive license access model, and we have assignments and permissions for a certain time period.

Spectrum is a public asset in most countries, it belongs to the country to manage that resource. It is a limited resource, and it is very important for wireless communication and for telecommunications.

You have other frequency bands that are unlicensed or license-exempt access bands. Let's make another analogy of a city, in a city you have some neighborhoods that are for residential, there are other neighborhoods that are for business and then you have public spaces, like parks. So, you can imagine unlicensed access as those places where you don't need a permission to go there, you just use it, it's public.

PG: In terms of Africa, what kind of laws and regulations need to change to make more efficient and effective spectrum a reality for the continent?

MS: There are a lot of needs in terms of adopting flexible frameworks. Africa is just starting to have experience with dynamic spectrum access systems. That's why I was speaking about TV white spaces, because in the case of the US and the UK, that was the first experience they had and then they observed that it works, that there was no problem of interference. Then they created what they call CBRS, that is spectrum sharing for 4G networks. So, they did it in the midbands in 3.5GHz and then they decided to use Automated Frequency Coordination (AFC) in the 6GHz band.

I think in Africa, most of the countries don't have that experience. So, they still feel hesitant about implementing opportunistic access, because it's a new way of managing the spectrum. But I think that is the future. Spectrum is a limited resource and so we could have more efficient technologies, we could use higher frequencies – for example, for 6G we are now speaking about Terahertz which are really high frequencies – or we just have spectrum sharing.

Those countries that are most advanced are those that have already some experience, for example, South Africa, Uganda, Mozambique and Nigeria are in the process also of implementing TV white spaces, following Brazil and Kenya's decisions to do so. We are also expecting that they will consider dynamic spectrum access.

But in the case of Wi-Fi they can move forward immediately, because they can adopt very low-power applications and low-power indoor, those that have no risk of interference. Then in a second step, when they feel more comfortable about it, they can implement standard powered with an automated frequency coordination system. So, there are steps they can take at particular times.

PG: Can you explain about TV white spaces a bit more? How does it actually work?

MS: What TV white spaces do is target those channels that no one is using, it's completely available, and using that spectrum for broadband Internet access, that's the principle.

The power levels of TV white spaces are much lower than the power level of broadcast TV stations. Because in TV you need to reach a lot of people. TV white spaces are lower power. So, a long time ago in Colombia, there was a study, that proved that TV white spaces is a better neighbor to a digital TV channel than another TV channel because of the power levels and because of the waveforms. You could have TV white spaces coexisting with analogue or digital TV.

It is more about using the spectrum that is available and making sure that you follow the rules that take into account the height of the antenna, the power levels, the out-of-band emissions, to make sure that there is no interference for the broadcasters.

PG: So, is there still a lot of spectrum that is not allocated that could make a difference?

MS: Exactly, that is the point. Also, in TV white spaces there are no fees for the spectrum access, there could be some administrative fees for the management of the access, but not for using the spectrum itself. So that's why it's really relevant for those that are still unconnected.

Many of those that are unconnected are in hard-to-reach places, or it's hard to have a business model for those regions for traditional operators, because it's very expensive. If they provide the service customers won't be able to pay for that, because it's not affordable. So that is one of the advantages of TV white spaces and also the equipment is much more affordable compared to other technologies.

You can also combine them, for example, you can have a backhaul satellite link, in a hard-to-reach area and then you have a link of TV white spaces, where the spectrum is free, and that would have very good propagation conditions. That's why we say that TV white spaces are good for last-mile connectivity.

PG: Spectrum is still a big moneymaker for governments so would you say that is one of the main problems that is holding back allocations and also cheaper access for people?

MS: Yes, I think that there is a tradeoff there. Because many administrations see spectrum as a way to get income and then they use the money to invest in different sectors, sometimes not even in ICT. So, we definitely think that spectrum shouldn't be seen as a source of income, but what should be considered is the economic benefit.

In the case of Wi-Fi, one of the concerns of the regulators is that if they give away spectrum for Wi-Fi, instead of waiting to see if they can auction that spectrum in the future for 5G, they will be losing money. We have done studies on this in Latin America – in Brazil, Peru, Mexico and Colombia – and we are planning to have studies in Africa as well.

So those studies were trying to take into account all the sources of value for unlicensed access with Wi-Fi. For example, African countries could use applications for virtual and augmented reality and use it for education, health and training for manufacturing.

You could have content that is in the local languages, and that is providing training, and people won't have to travel to see how machines are working because they can use augmented and virtual reality. It is also very useful to the GDP when you give people public access for hotspots.

We quantified all that and we took into account the effect for the next ten years. For example, in the case of Brazil, the result is that the impact was $163 billion in ten years.

We also quantified the opportunity cost. Because Wi-Fi starts to provide benefits from the first moment, because people can buy the equipment, and they can do it directly, they don't need someone to deploy the network. For Brazil the opportunity cost, if [we] waited until 2024 instead of opening the band immediately, like they did, the opportunity cost was $17 billion. So instead of getting the benefits, you would lose the opportunity of creating that benefit for society.

PG: So, for Africa, where would you say the bottlenecks are that are holding things back?

MS: In terms of the regulations, I wouldn't say holding things back, I think that Africa as a region, they wanted to study the possibilities for IMT [International Mobile Telecommunications].

My impression is that many regulators still prefer to wait, and what we are explaining is that they should act now, because you're losing that opportunity cost, and that is for something that is uncertain. The value of the spectrum is when you use it. If it is not used, it doesn't have any value.

PG: We've seen some positives recently with Kenya's decision to approve the framework authorizing the use of a TV white space, what does that mean for the Kenyan industry and consumers there?

MS: Yes, we think that's very good. What I personally like very much about Kenya is that they have a long-term vision for spectrum sharing and dynamic spectrum access. They recognize that there are many solutions, not only one. They started with the TV white spaces, it took a while, but now it's approved.

They also recently published a consultation about community networks. So that is really important, because it's creating conditions for communities to have their own access to the Internet and create their own frameworks to have their own networks. We expect that the next step will be about 6GHz, so they could also consider additional spectrum for Wi-Fi.

There was also a working group on emerging technologies from the African Telecommunications Union and Kenya was the reporter of that group. They were considering 5G, Wi-Fi 6 – the new generation of Wi-Fi – and also some new technologies for satellite. In that study, there is a draft recommendation for all the administrations in Africa to consider unlicensed access to the lower part of the 6GHz band.

That's the first step and we think it's good if there is an African recommendation that would be easier for administrations to follow that and to have the same rules, that would be amazing. Then we expect that in parallel to other considerations, some administrations will also consider the upper part of the 6GHz band.

PG: What is the message you would want African regulators to have, in terms of what DSA does and how you think it can help in terms of digital inclusion?

MS: I would say that it's important to give the opportunity to different solutions to prove how they can improve connectivity. If we keep thinking just on the traditional models, it will be very hard to close the gap. If you keep doing the same things, you're going to get the same result.

We know it's hard to manage all the requirements from different technologies and different sectors. But it's important that they provide the conditions for everyone to participate and to provide services.

That is my message – that spectrum sharing is not a goal itself. It's a tool in the toolkit. We think that it has a lot to offer, so I would encourage them to see how they can provide conditions for everyone to play and to access spectrum. The DSA would be really glad to support them and to have discussions to understand how we can best help them on that task.

*Top image is of Martha Suarez, president of the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance. (Source: DSA).

— Paula Gilbert, Editor, Connecting Africa

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