Spectrum: What challenges are operators facing?

Telcos demand more spectrum allocations, while regulators have to harmonise spectrum
Aggregation, Du, GSMA, Harmonization, Huawei, ITU, MEA, Ovum, Spectrum, UAE TRA, Umniah

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Operators spend tremendous amounts of money when buying license to upgrade their networks. Customers are demanding better services, starting with the latest and fastest network available in the market. In order to monetise this investment, operators have to make sure that they are using the spectrum acquired in the most efficient way.

Middle East and African operators are also undergoing a harmonisation process, as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) requested. This organisation has gathered Europe, Middle East and African in the region 1, but not all countries are following establishing harmonised technical rules on the allocation of 790–862MHz band. The ITU set 2015 as the deadline to implement this allocation.

“We expect that Regulators are harmonising as part of their participation in the different international meetings such as ITU meetings, while closer arrangements are being done between neighbouring countries to control the overspill from border sites and agree on border areas spectrum allocations to avoid interference and assure the right quality of service in these areas,” said Khaled Hudhud, director of Government Relations and Regulatory Affairs and Ahmad Jaghoub, director of Engineering and IT at Umniah.

“The same options are needed across Europe, Middle East and Africa as this is necessary to get enough critical mass of users to sustain the ecosystem of manufactures of equipment and software and application developers," they said to CommsMEA.

The market for network equipment and devices in the 790–862MHz band is rapidly growing, with parts of the Middle East following the European plan for the Digital Dividend in Region 1 and African markets seeing the opportunity to leverage these economies of scale.

“The GSMA believes that voluntary network sharing arrangements between commercial operators could offer a means of reducing costs, aggregating increasing data traffic, expanding coverage and capacity and delivering more affordable services to customers,” said Peter Lyons, director of Public Policy at GSMA.

Mohamed Abdelrehim, head of Mobile Broadband Radio Access, Middle East Africa Sales Development at Nokia Networks said that currently there are eight operators in the MEA region considering a Network Sharing Solution.

“A recent discussion held at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona had the eight Major Operators reaching an agreement to move forward with Network Sharing. With almost 80 networks among the eight operators spread over 47 countries this opportunity will mean a huge stride forward for Network Sharing in the MEA region. With the current stresses on Mobile Operators to ensure capacity and coverage in some very remote areas where return on investment may be slower than urban areas, the sharing concept may be the solution. Challenges will include the management and day to day operations of these “shared “networks but there are numerous shared networks throughout the world where the experience can be shared and lesson learnt can be shared,” he added.

The SAMENA Telecommunications Council is encouraging telecom regulatory authorities to have flexible spectrum allocation strategies for telecom operators - available spectrum resulting from the digital switch over.

“Regrettably, for the most part, regulators in the region have been slow to release much needed spectrum, especially as regards the much needed 700 and 800 MHz for efficient and cost effective deployment of 4G-LTE. The UAE was the first to announce release of 700 and 800 MHz spectrum and Oman has recently taken steps to do the same. We are anxiously awaiting similar responses from other regulators in the region,” said Bocar Ba, CEO at SAMENA Telecommunications Council.

Lyons added that it is essential that regulators sustain a competitive telecoms market in order to encourage the innovation that drives higher quality, better value services. “Regulators should facilitate voluntary network sharing by easing planning controls to encourage shared fibre transmission facilities, including preferential access along roads and other state property. Furthermore, registered providers (including third party tower companies) should be permitted to construct and acquire passive infrastructure and then sell access to operators,” he said.

The Arab Spectrum Management Group(ASMG) is a forum which brings the 22 Arab countries of MEA region together to harmonise and discuss the spectrum issues, operating under the Arab League.

Tariq Al-Awadhi, executive director spectrum affairs at the Spectrum Affairs Department in the UAE TRA and chairman of the Arab Spectrum Management Group highlighted that all the proposals are effectively implemented.

“All countries in the ME are trying their best to make more and more spectrum available to the operators. Since the number of operators in each country varies from two to three, and the data requirements are still growing, at present the spectrum available is supportive but at the same time all ME regulators are actively following WRC-15 agenda items 1.1 and 1.2 to make more mobile spectrum available,” commented Al-Awadhi.

Saleem AlBalooshi, executive vice president, Network Development and Operations at du commented that the Arab Spectrum Management Group is the relevant and competent organisation to lead the spectrum harmonisation across Middle East region.

“The ASMG is an effective regional regulatory grouping of the MENA Countries there are of course different spectrum challenges in the Middle East and North African markets and there are additional regional organisations like the GCC for the Middle East and the ATU for the North African Countries,” commented Abdelrehim.

According to Navi Naidoo, group chief technical officer at MTN, “the Arab Spectrum Management Group largely mirror northern and western Arica’s spectrum visions and we believe that collectively they have a strong voice at bodies such as the ITU.”

According to Ihab Ghattas, assistant president of Huawei Middle East, operators in the MEA are continuously focusing on finding new spectrum options especially for LTE.

“Most of the countries and operators have identified Digital Dividend Band as the potential new spectrum option. There are potential opportunities now in Digital Dividend 1 (800 MHz) and Digital Dividend 2 (700 MHz) after 2015. Regulators are discussing different challenges locally and on the regional level to speed up the spectrum availability in Digital Dividend band,” he added.

However, Matthew Reed, practice leader at Ovum believes that “many countries in the region are unlikely to meet the mid-2015 target for digital migration.”

AlBalooshi said that during the short term it is needed for TRAs and Ministries to continue their efforts to fully implement previous ITU DSO (Digital Switch Over) recommendations to free DD800MHz band. “The UAE has been a pioneer and leader in enforcing DSO across the nation thanks to the leading role of the UAE TRA. We as du, have always and continue to fully support our partners in the UAE TRA in all technology and spectrum aspects. This cooperation has been evident in our successful LTE800 Trial recently conducted in cooperation with the UAE TRA,” he noted.

“MEA is currently developing very similarly to the European ecosystem. Although it’s clear that the development will not be exactly the same, mainly due to the fact that some countries implemented ANSI frequencies (CDMA 2000 and/or iDEN). The strength of the European ecosystem drives the availability of handsets, which eventually reduces the costs of handsets. This cost is one of the main drivers in every operator’s business case; therefore it could be not beneficial to try to adopt different options,” said Abdelrehim to CommsMEA.

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