The spectrum efficiency continuum

In August 2022, I wrote a blog post about the need for innovation in the allocation of spectrum. One proposal was to allocate spectrum to a Managed Spectrum Park (MSP). This blog post provides a bit more detail on how this could be done. For simplicity, let’s assume that there is 60MHz available in a high-demand frequency band such as 800MHz. The question is how to allocate the 60MHz effectively. 

MSPs are appealing because they address the main failing of the current mechanism for allocating spectrum: winner takes all. An operator that wins a traditional national spectrum auction gets all that spectrum. That spectrum may not be used in large portions of the country. Regulators try to limit this inefficiency by imposing universal service obligations (USO’s). USO’s are administratively burdensome and not always effective because they rely on the winning operator to implement them. The winner-takes-all approach rewards incumbency and to penalizes innovation. 

MSPs can turn this equation around by acting as a holding area for spectrum. At the most efficient level, each site is available. Moving left along the continuum means lower levels of efficiency as allocation is moved towards a national license. The site-by-site process can be automated so that licensees can see which sites are available in real-time and put in their application immediately. This process expands the number of operators; encourages smaller licensees and new players to access spectrum, so it promotes competition and facilitates private investment. In the table below, there are two options, one for site-level allocations and one for national allocations. The principle behind Option 1 is that operators with existing sites get allocated some 800MHz spectrum but spectrum that is not allocated to an existing site is handed over to the MSP. In Option 2, the MSP is awarded spectrum along with existing operators.

 Option 1 Option 2
Type of License For each RAN site National license
Spectrum EfficiencyHighest - MSP can assign up to 60MHz to unserved locationsLowest since spectrum is only used where licensee has RAN sites
Existing operatorsAward or auction to MNOs with RAN sites but spectrum handed to MSP where are there no sitesAward or auction to national mobile operators but cannot access MSP
MSPWhere there are no RAN sites, up to 60 MHz1 lot of 10MHz up and down

This approach is an attempt to solve the spectrum efficiency conundrum: existing national, all-or-nothing allocations are inefficient and result in large amounts of spectrum going unused. The MSP option parks the excess spectrum and makes it available to a wide range of users. The question is when this approach can be piloted and where. 

Other news from around Africa
  • South Sudan fibre: South Sudan and Djibouti have signed an agreement to build a fibre route from South Sudan’s capital, Juba, to Djibouti via Ethiopia. 
  • Starlink adds Zambia: Starlink’s satellite broadband service will soon be available in Zambia. Prices are not clear yet, but Nigerian’s pay USD 110 per month. 
  • ICASA extends deadline: The deadline for public comments on the spectrum licensing process has been extended to the 30th of September.