Below 1 GHz spectrum

This week’s newsletter looks at the benefits of below 1 GHz (or low-band) spectrum, especially for low population areas or areas with difficult terrain. The focus on low-band spectrum is timely because delays to South Africa’s spectrum auction look, yet again, very likely. Telkom South Africa has just asked the court to delay the proposed spectrum auction. Telkom claims that the Invitation to Apply (ITA), issued in December 2021, has several errors: it is allocating spectrum that eTV (a broadcaster) has refused to give up; that the ITA entrenches the existing anti-competitive structure in the market (i.e., that the market is dominated by two operators, MTN and Vodacom); and an arbitrary allocation of spectrum to a wholesale open access network (WOAN). 

Obviously, the allocation of spectrum is a critical resource and one of the prime tasks of a regulator. This is a task that ICASA has been failing for nearly 16 years. But why is low-band spectrum that important to a mobile operator? The 450MHz Alliance has come up with a neat diagram that compares the benefits of low-band spectrum. 

Figure 1: Coverage areas for different spectrum

As Figure 1 shows, the lower the spectrum, the better the coverage is. For universal service, this is a crucial feature because it means fewer antennas and fewer base stations. That lowers the cost, especially in areas that are marginal because of low population density and low income. According to the Global Suppliers Association (GSA), the most popular spectrum globally is 800 MHz, followed by 700MHz. But an increasing number of operators are investigating 450MHz spectrum and, globally, ten operators have launched commercial services using this band. Naturally, device support for such a low band is going to be a challenge, but we are already seeing significant support all the way down to 600MHz (Table 1). 

BandNumber of devices% of phones
450 MHz (Band 31) 1890.53
600 MHz (Band 71) 37536.5
700 MHz (Bands 12, 13 ,14 or 17) 536351.3
700 MHz (Band 28) 346351
800 MHz (Band 20)800760.6
850 MHz (Band 5)810458.3
900 MHz (Band 8)778855.2

So, if South Africa wants to provide fast mobile broadband, including new technologies such as 5G, it needs to sort out the spectrum auction process as quickly as possible. While South Africa dithers, the rest of the world is quickly moving along, making mobile broadband more affordable and accessible. 

Other news from around Africa 
  • Nigeria: The NCC has extended the deadline for mobile phone users to register for a National Identification Number until the end of March 2022. This is the 7th extension? Is there any point to the deadline? 
  • Kenya: Safaricom has file a case with the Communications and Multi-media Appeals Tribunal to delay the interconnection rate cut from KES 0.99 to KES 0.12 per minute. As a result, the new termination rates have been suspended pending the outcome of the appeal. 
  • Egypt: A 10% tariff on smartphones was imposed last year. As a result, imports of smartphones saw a 19.5% decline. 
  • Tanzania: Airtel has sold all its tower assets to a joint venture between SBA Communications Corporation and Paradigm Infrastructure Limited.