Telecommunications companies in Africa and around the world are turning to existing spectrum (2G and 3G) licences, also known as legacy spectrum, for 4G and 5G services due to the need to meet the coverage and capacity expectations of the newer network generations.
According to the GSMA’s latest report on technology neutrality and legacy network sunsets in Africa, the rapid growth in data traffic as more people get online and increasingly make use of bandwidth-heavy applications, such as video conferencing and streaming services, has led telecom operators into refarming spectrum. The GSMA released the report on Wednesday at the ongoing Mobile World Congress in Kigali, Rwanda.
Spectrum is not readily available when operators need it, even as demand for more data bandwidth rises. This is particularly more evident with the advent and growth of 5G technology. Gbenga Adebayo, president of the Association of Licenced Telecommunication Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), in an October presentation to Bosun Tijani, the new minister of communications, innovation, and digital economy, highlighted the insufficiency of existing spectrum offerings for mobile operators.
“The available spectrum offerings are insufficient in view of the constantly evolving range of telecommunication services. This is especially true of the mid-band range, which is optimal for next-generation communications due to its ability to deliver on both coverage and capacity,” said Adebayo in a statement made available to BusinessDay. “In fact, the GSMA has recommended that policymakers should licence spectrum to mobile operators in harmonised bands, such as 3.5GHz, 4.8GHz, and 6GHz, in order to meet the ITU’s requirements by 2030 and maximise the full potential of 5G.”
The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) began to publicly encourage the refarming of existing spectrum in 2016. Umar Danbatta, the then executive vice chairman of NCC, said due to refarming, the commission was able to revive some of the companies whose services had been hampered by the characteristics of the frequencies.
The GSMA report describes spectrum refarming as a phrase used to describe the repurposing of spectrum bands to more efficient technologies. For example, a mobile operator using 1800 MHz to provide 2G services may choose to free a portion of this range for 4G or 5G services to meet the growing demand for data services. In Nigeria, MTN acquired the assets of CDMA operator Visafone in 2016 and was able to refarm the defunct operator’s 800 MHz spectrum to launch 4G services.
Connecting all parts of Africa to 4G by 2030 would add $75 billion in economic value, adding 5.5 percent to projected growth, according to GSMA Intelligence estimates.
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This will only be achieved if telecommunication regulators in Africa take a proactive approach towards technology-network licensing. Technology neutrality does not give mobile operators the freedom to do anything they want within a frequency band. The regulators still govern the deployment of radio communications networks including, for example, those designed to protect other spectrum users and ensure that transmission power and radiation limits are not breached. Technology-neutral licensing refers to spectrum licences that allow the deployment of any standards-based technology that complies with regulations in the licenced frequency band.
In new 5G markets where spectrum is scarce, technology-neutral licensing can be a way to reduce the pressure and deepen penetration of the technology. For example, Nigeria had only 4 100MHz in the 3.5GHz band. It successfully sold three of those licences and had only one left which will be likely needed soon by one or two of the existing operators when demand for the network picks up. If the country is unable to offer additional spectrum in this band, it could pose quality threats for any of the operators.
The GSMA report notes that operators in other markets, mostly outside the African continent, are already exploring refarming legacy spectrum for their 5G network deployments. In this case, spectrum migration is mainly seen in the 1800, 2100, and 2600 MHz bands. The 2600 MHz band is increasingly being tested and deployed for 5G, reflecting its relative availability and widespread use in 3G and 4G networks. AIS, a mobile operator in Thailand, successfully tested carrier aggregation using 100MHz in the 2600 MHz band and 1200 MHz in the 26 GHz band.
“The ability to refarm existing 3G spectrum on these frequencies in 5G networks is an important part of the transition to 5G,” the GSMA report noted.
As a policy, technology neutrality is considered necessary for dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS). The DSS enables operators to use the same spectrum band for different radio access technologies such as 4G and 5G, to mitigate the absence of a new 5G spectrum. As of June 2023, the report showed that DSS had been deployed for 5G networks by 49 operators in 34 countries. In Africa, one of these operators was MTN, which deployed 5G in South Africa, in partnership with Huawei, using DSS on the 2.1 GHz frequency band to upgrade 4G base stations to 5G without changing antennas in radio units.
The report showed that in countries where technology neutrality has been implemented in Africa, it has contributed to significant growth in mobile internet penetration (30 percent growth as of 2022) and the 4G network has surged (74 percent) compared to countries that are yet to do so. Download speeds have also grown by 13.7 percent as of 2022 in countries with technology neutrality compared to 9.9 percent in countries without.
GSMA Intelligence, in their coverage gap analysis, notes that using sub-1 GHz spectrum to deploy 4G in four countries including Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, and Tanzania, would enable rural 4G coverage to increase by 4-11 percentage points (depending on the country) compared to deployment in the 1800 MHz band. As of August 2023, 4G coverage in Nigeria stood at 28 percent.
While Nigeria is identified as one of the countries on the continent that allow operators to refarm their existing spectrum, there is no regulatory framework that supports the practice. Hence, operators need to get the necessary approval from the NCC.
“There is a need to review the spectrum management process to ensure optimal use of the scarce resource for the benefit of the nation. The assignment process, actual use of the frequency, and the secondary trade of spectrum all contribute to the effective and efficient management of the spectrum resource,” Adebayo said. “In the Nigeria National Broadband Plan 2020-2025, it was stated that ‘idle high demand spectrum does a disservice to poorly served populations and should be released for effective use as may be required.’”