Angela Wamola, Head of Sub-Saharan Africa at the GSMA talks about the lack of access to low-band spectrum hinders rural 5G rollout in Africa, widening the digital divide.

There are well-known divides between the rural and urban parts of most countries in the world. Rural areas have less access to employment, they have less access to healthcare, schools and government services. We know, also, that they have less access to connectivity. Unless urgent action is taken, rural areas across Africa will continue to have lower quality communications (which supports employment and all those other things mentioned above) for another decade.

5G is growing in Africa with more and more countries now launching services. It will operate in tandem with 4G for years to come in the continent as 3G services are phased out. Launches tend to be urban-first – rolling out coverage in the small, densely populated areas of cities is a far easier task than reaching across vast landscapes – but without the right radio spectrum there is a risk that the download speeds available in cities will never be matched elsewhere.

Is it right for high quality 5G to be urban-only? Should mobile support everyone on a journey towards a brighter, more prosperous future and leave no-one behind in the digital age? We do not think people should be prejudiced dependent on where they live, but unless African governments can agree on support for low-band radio spectrum, at the 2023 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-23) they will be.

Spectrum highways

The problem is spectrum bandwidth. In the same way that the volume of traffic that passes along a road is dependent on the number of lanes, the download speeds of mobile are intrinsically linked to the capacity of spectrum available. Spectrum is a pipe for all that data. Cities can use mid-band spectrum, which has a lot of capacity but signals that do not reach very. In rural areas, we need low-band spectrum which has good reach but smaller capacity.

Low-band spectrum is in short supply and is used by mobile and digital TV. How much bandwidth you give to mobile defines what the quality of 5G will be in rural areas, whereas more TV spectrum means more TV channels. The question is, how many digital terrestrial TV channels do you want to watch in the 2020s? Do you need ten, thirty, sixty? Perhaps, but beyond that TV channels become so niche as to be best served up online. That means that governments in Africa can support mobile without harming TV.

So why is SSA not fully supporting this issue at WRC-23? In some African countries mobile penetration is higher than TV penetration, coverage is often better. Both TV and mobile have a role to play in bringing societal benefits, but mobile’s role in bringing education, health and safety information is not always clear enough at a political level. Another problem is that digital TV networks tend to be national assets, owned and marketed by governments to both national and commercial broadcasters. The more TV channels, the more revenue the network generates which, at first glance, might appear to lead to economic benefit for the country. Cost-benefit analysis shows that this is an incorrect assumption, however, because mobile penetration brings economic growth and the returns from increasingly niche TV channels start to become minimal. There are other potential users of spectrum than TV, and analysis shows that a win-win of more mobile spectrum plus TV growth brings the most economic benefit. Simply maintaining the status quo will result in inefficient spectrum use.

Of course, some governments have realised that this win-win situation is possible and are, for different reasons, blazing a trail towards improving rural connectivity. Namibia has, for some time, been quietly highlighting the possibilities of mobile and broadcasting co-existence and has its own plans for use of low-band frequencies for mobile. Nigeria has also moved forward this year by announcing plans to move ahead with the assignment of low-band 600 MHz spectrum. What is more, there is some discussion that this may be assigned to encourage participation by entities that can demonstrate the strongest rural connectivity plan. This would be truly visionary and would be game-changing for rural Nigeria.

It is hard to imagine that a successful spectrum assignment process and subsequent 5G roll-out in 600 MHz low-band, which can raise rural speeds by 35%, would not eventually be copied by other countries. But regulatory processes are slow and delivering well into the future means acting now at this year’s WRC-23.

Low-band spectrum will bring better employment, education, and healthcare to rural communities. Let’s not make these benefits urban-only. Let’s make sure that journey to a brighter, more prosperous future is for everyone.

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