The planned temporary roll-out of high-demand spectrum by the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa), to contribute to government’s fight against the spread of the deadly Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, has been met with enthusiasm in the telecommunications sector.
Chafic Traboulsi, Ericsson head of networks in Africa and the Middle East, told City Press on Tuesday that “during the difficult times of Covid-19, mobile networks are serving an essential part of the communications backbone by enabling health workers, public safety officials and critical businesses to stay connected, even in remote locations”.
He said broadband connectivity was serving as the primary mode of business and social interaction during periods of national lockdown.
“Now more than ever, people are spending more time online at home and, as a result, are generating more traffic per day. A significant part of this traffic is being served by the mobile networks, which has led to increased load and stress on the infrastructure,” he said.
Following policy directives by suspended Communications, Telecommunications and Postal Services Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, Icasa last week published regulations setting out the minimum standards that licencees must adhere to for the Covid-19 lockdown period, now extended to the end of April.
The regulator said that 35 licence applications for temporary spectrum were being assessed.
Traboulsi told City Press that the additional spectrum would serve as a way of “ensuring service continuity with minimal, if any, performance impact, thereby ensuring that the people of South Africa can remain connected while practicing social distancing.
“The impact of the temporary spectrum relief will benefit users of three types – consumers, employees and self-employed or temporary workers. An enhanced user experience for both employees and temporary workers is growing in importance”.
However, he warned, “it should be noted that making use of the additional spectrum could take time and requires network infrastructure investment on part of the operators.
“It also depends on the spectrum itself. It can be done in two ways – allocating extra bandwidth on existing spectrum or allocating an entirely new spectrum. Those could have two different implementation timelines and associated costs.”
Traboulsi said the role of mobile connectivity was not just limited to times of crisis, “rather it is an enabler for economic growth”, adding that the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report considered information and communications technology (ICT) adoption as one of the pillars for driving competitive business.
“Throughout history, new technology has always been an important driver of productivity and economic development.
“We believe broadband mobile connectivity to be the catalyst for the next big leap in the history of human development,” he said.
The trend of people working from home, which has spiked during the lockdown period, “will be the new normal in the future”.
Furthermore, he said, mobile networks were increasingly recognised as a critical infrastructure, with the UN’s International Telecommunication Union clearly stating that “ICTs have the potential to fast-forward progress to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”.
“According to a research study, strong economic growth has made it easier for both the public and private sectors to invest in mobile broadband since 2001. On average, a 10% increase in mobile broadband adoption causes an initial 0.8% increase in GDP,” he said.
Is the price of data likely to fall?
“In order to be able to provide a better experience to their subscribers today, operators need a combination of spectrum bands in high frequencies to improve capacity, such as the extension of Advanced Wireless Service and 2.5 gigahertz, as well as low frequencies to secure coverage, such as the 700 megahertz band.”
The aggregation of LTE carriers in different frequency bands was quickly gaining momentum as a new way to achieve higher data to significantly improve the consumer’s service experience, but, at the same time, the operators’ need for spectrum also went up, he said.
“The spectrum has an impact on the costs towards the roll-out of networks. If enough and the right spectrum mix is made available to the market, it will go a long way in impacting positively on the costs. It will then be for each operator to decide on how that translates into price towards the consumer,” Traboulsi said.
He also said the dependency on mobile broadband for basic societal functions was growing “and if all society functions become partly digital, we need to connect the whole population by offerings tailored solutions for each demographic segment of the market.
“We will need to increase the offerings tailored to users with a low level of digital literacy and the amount of micro-segmented services offered at a fraction of the cost compared to current base packages.
“At Ericsson we have customised solutions to offer connectivity in rural areas. However, the entire ecosystem, including the regulatory and the operators, has to collaborate to deliver mobile connectivity nationwide.”
He said the company recommend that additional spectrum, particularly in the low bands, be permanently made available to the operators so that they can ensure long-term connectivity for the rural areas.
“Making use of additional spectrum would require some changes to existing infrastructure and at times may entail additional infrastructure deployment.
“We believe that for continued nationwide availability of reliable and high-speed mobile broadband, spectrum resources in low, medium and high bands should be readily made available to operators. Why not keep the infrastructure and allocate the frequencies permanently? Shouldn’t governments encourage and invest in their nations’ digital future?” he asked.