While regulatory processes in the communications industry are important, these processes should not get in the way of new developments.
This means that regulatory authorities like the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) should be proactive and be agile enough to develop regulatory frameworks, adjust fee structures and promulgate regulations that keep track of the pace of technological developments. The communications industry is already hampered by long International Telecommunications Union (ITU) processes to make new spectrum available or re-arrange spectrum allocations to meet new developments.
A case in point is the relatively new addition to the spectrum allocated for fixed point to point communication – e-band. E-band comprises a total of 10 GHz in two ranges 71 – 76 GHz and 81 – 86 GHz. This new allocation far exceeds the current, more traditional spectrum for fixed wireless services and opens up the ability of the communications industry to offer multi-gigabit connectivity that can provide wireless capacity of over 1000 Mbps.
E-band is an important spectrum as it will assist the industry to meet the ever-increasing demand for cost-effective and reliable links that are quick to deploy. Fixed point-to-point wireless systems are ideal because of their flexibility, speed of deployment and overall life-cycle costs compared to leased line solutions.
The list of applications of e-band is endless and includes mobile backhaul and aggregation for mobile networks, high capacity business services, healthcare applications to connect various campuses, laboratory networks and access to real-time imaging. In education, e-band systems can connect high-performance campuses and off-site locations.
As e-band is not in use for other applications it has been consistently allocated to fixed wireless services world-wide. One of the key issues underlying frequency coordination is interference between various services. Unlike the traditional microwave frequencies where antennas have beam widths of several degrees, the antennas used for e-band are extremely narrow, which means that interference is highly unlikely.
At 80 GHz the energy is focussed into a pencil-beam which creates a directional transmission which not only minimises interference potential but enhances the link security by making it effectively impossible to intercept or jam the RF signals without physically blocking the RF path.
The current European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) standard for e-band is intended for self-coordination and as such does not stipulate a full set of receiver parameters. It recognises that due to its excellent spectral re-use characteristics minimal frequency coordination is required.
Carriers in Europe have indicated that they would prefer a more centrally coordinated licence approach in order to safeguard their mission-critical services. For that reason ETSI TM4 is currently redrafting EN 302 217-2 to include 80 GHz, allowing regulators the choice of self-coordination or fully coordinated deployment in the future.
Licensing of e-band
Traditionally microwave licensing schemes are based on occupied bandwidth, which also determines the licence fee. For example, the fee for a 56 MHz channel will cost twice as much as that for a 28 MHz channel. In e-band, the European Radio Communication Committee (ERC) of the ITU recommendations are written around low-level modulation schemes and very wide bandwidths.
This means that existing formulas for licensing costs can grossly overprice an 80 GHz channel 1 GHz wide. In some countries the licensing is still based on traditional approaches which basically have made e-band unaffordable and negating the value it can bring to the communications industry. Other countries have a more sensible pricing approach, thus leading to large scale deployment in a very under-utilised spectrum.
ICASA should not try to re-invent the wheel but take its lead from countries where the deployment of e-band is facilitated by their regulators. OFCOM, the UK regulator has introduced a link registration process and charges a licence fee of £50, which includes the charge for registration of the first link for the first year.
In the USA, the Federal Communication Commission offers a nationwide licence for $895 and maintains a point-point link register. To register a link costs $75. The process takes a day or so. The $75 registration fee gets the operator a licence for ten years. The only restriction is if the link is near a radio astronomy site, when a more detailed application is required which may take up to 30 days to be approved.
In South Africa it is possible to carry out pilot studies but beyond that the authority is still applying its mind as to how it will regulate e-band and at what cost.
I believe it is time for ICASA to take a pro-active approach and fast track regulations so that the country can benefit from the new developments. Unless that happens the 2020 vision of broadband for all will but remain a pipedream.