LTE/pre-4G spectrum licensing plans from ICASA

Building a large-scale wireless network presents interesting capacity challenges compared to wireline networks. This is according to CTIA, a wireless telecommunication trade body in the US. “One strand of fiber optic cable has more capacity than the entire electromagnetic spectrum,” said CTIA.

Due to limited nature of radio frequency spectrum and the increasing demand for wireless services, industry players around the world – South Africa included – are pushing for more efficient use of spectrum.

In South Africa the current discussions are largely centred around the 2.6 gigahertz (GHz) and 800 megahertz (MHz) bands, both of which have been earmarked for the roll-out of “pre-4G” technologies such as LTE (Long Term Evolution, seen as the successor to GSM and HSPA) and Mobile WiMAX.

The 800MHz band in question, which runs from 790MHz to 862MHz in South Africa, is also known as the digital dividend – a part of spectrum which will become available once our migration from analogue to digital broadcasting is completed.

2.6GHz spectrum allocations in South Africa - ManyPossibilities
2.6GHz spectrum allocations in South Africa (image from ManyPossibilities.net)

The 2.6GHz (or 2600MHz) band is a whole different story, as it is largely unallocated. Unfortunately, state-owned signal distributor Sentech already occupies an inconvenient portion of this valuable spectrum, complicating the licensing thereof to operators interested in rolling out LTE.

South Africa’s telecommunications regulator, ICASA, previously said that maintaining the status quo in the 2.6GHz band was not an option and Sentech has said that it is open to migrating their allotment within the band.

However, Sentech CEO Setumo Mohapi said that they would not relinquish any of their spectrum.

2.6GHz band: Possible migration
2.6GHz band: Possible migration

The fate of Sentech’s 2.6GHz spectrum

Philemon Molefe, senior manager for frequency spectrum in the engineering and technology division at ICASA, speaking at an event hosted by local branches of the IEEE, confirmed that there have been spectrum negotiations between Sentech and ICASA.

Molefe said that the negotiations with Sentech involved how to partition their allocation to harmonise the band with international guidelines, as well as whether Sentech would return some of its spectrum.

Details of the outcome of the negotiations could not be provided.

Simultaneous licensing of 800MHz and 2.6GHz a possibility

Dumisa Ngwenya, general manager of engineering at ICASA, said that there are reasons to consider licensing the 800MHz digital dividend spectrum with the frequencies in the 2.6Ghz band.

In particular, Ngwenya highlighted that lower frequency spectrum offers wider coverage, whereas higher frequency spectrum allows operators to address capacity demands in higher population density areas.

Given the benefits of acquiring low and high frequency spectrum at the same time, this format would be particularly attractive to new mobile network operators, or operators that are “spectrum poor.”

Conclude licensing by March 2012

Ngwenya said that according to ICASA’s corporate strategy, the regulator plans to conclude the licensing of the digital dividend spectrum by March 2012, just before the switch-on deadline of SA’s digital TV signal in April of that year.

This means that ICASA intends to allocate the spectrum in the 2.6GHz band as well should it be decided to license it along with the 800MHz spectrum.

The devil is in the details

Although it was encouraging to hear of the wide-ranging discussions ICASA is involved in regarding spectrum licensing in the digital dividend and 2.6GHz bands, one can’t help but worry that no decisions have been made and no action has been taken.

It seems as if much still needs to be decided and resolved before the work of allocating the spectrum can actually begin.

If ICASA wants to have this spectrum allocated by March 2012 and get South Africa’s pre-4G network roll-outs under way speedily, these open issues will need to be resolved post-haste.

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LTE/pre-4G spectrum licensing plans from ICASA