International Telecommunications Union (ITU) made it clear: The deadline was not postponed for the digital switchover, even if some countries did not meet it. By 17th June 2015, Europe, Middle East and Africa (Region 1) were supposed to meet the deadline set by the ITU for television stations in the region 1 to migrate from analogue broadcasting to digital terrestrial television (DTT), to allocate the digital dividend to the mobile service for the 700 MHz.

“The switchover from analogue to digital broadcasting will create new distribution networks and expand the potential for wireless innovation and services,” said Houlin Zhao, ITU Secretary General.“New efficiencies in spectrum usage will allow more television channels to be carried across the airwaves and lead to greater convergence of services.”

When regulators align their mobile-sector spectrum with international band plans, mobile devices can be built less expensively because a single device model can be manufactured for many countries, driving prices down due to the economies of scale, as the GSMA explains. This brings more products and services to more people, while allowing people to use their mobile phones cheaply and easily when travelling abroad. Moreover, interference along national borders is reduced when mobile bands are harmonised between countries, the organisation adds.

For Peter Lyons, director of Middle East and North Africa at GSMA and member of the spectrum policy team at this organisation, spectrum seems the centre of the challenges for operators. He believes that deciding where to allocate spectrum in the future will determine the future of the telecoms sector for customers and operators.

The disparity in the penetration rate in the Middle East and Africa region is also linked to spectrum, as Lyons explains. Affordability when buying a smartphone and subscribing to a service is the main driver to improve the telecom market and develop the networks.

The GSMA has stated in different occasions that not all countries did not follow established harmonised technical rules on the allocation of 790–862MHz band. As countries are not following the recommendations, they did not meet the deadline imposed by the ITU.

“All countries in the ME were trying their best to make more and more spectrum available to the operators,” said Tariq Al-Awadhi, executive director Spectrum Affairs at Spectrum Affairs Department at UAE TRA.

Lyons believe that the GCC worked towards the deadline and set the UAE as the example, all broadcaster made the shift by December 2014. “In Central Africa, for example, they are not doing anything for obvious reasons, because of their civil war, so this issue is deprioritise,” he added.

Some countries are not financially ready for this change, Lyons explains that many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have several analogue broadcasters, in many cases related to local and political interests, with no resources to adequate the transition to digital. “On top of that, many of the customers have analogue televisions that will cannot be updated and will not receive the digital signal,” he added.

More spectrum requested

During the Arab Spectrum Management Group (ASMG), the GSMA talk bilaterally to at least half a dozen regulators to say that the mobile data traffic patent growth that we are seeing on the operators networks is far above anything that has been discussed.

“It is important for governments to realise that without a future spectrum agenda, operators will have very limited visibility and very limited incentive for making the kind of investment needed to face this future mobile data growth. The policy makers and regulators fundamentally underestimate how people are using mobile data in this region,”said Lyons.

The problem with future spectrum is that now that spectrum is allocated for other use, for instance satellite, or television broadcast, such as terrestrial broadcast, he explained.

Lyons added that spectrum issue is not a technical issue. “If there is a technical issue, it is very easy to solve. It is a political issue.”

If future spectrum is not agreed in November during the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), it will not be agreed until 2023, he warned.