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‘Spectrum availability will boost continent’s digital ambition’

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The scarcity of spectrum resources is seen as a major limitation of digital ambitions of African countries, including Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Egypt, and others.

Spectrum is described as the lifeblood of the telecommunications industry, cum the economy.

Though, the challenge of scarcity is not limited to the continent, it is a major concern globally, especially in developing economies.

But, according to the Group Chief Executive Officer, MTN, Rob Shuter, it appears the challenge is more pronounced in this region.

Speaking at the yearly AfricaCom conference in Cape Town, South Africa, as captured by Telecoms.com, Shutter posited that the South African government is demanding more from the telcos, without offering more of this valuable asset to deliver.

‘‘The MTN business has been working with the same spectrum allocation for decades, a situation which cannot continue. More spectrums are needed,’’ he was quoted.

Operators in Nigeria have also demanded more spectrum availability to help, especially in their expansion drive.

According to the report, this is a gripe of almost every telecoms operator around the world; there isn’t enough spectrum available to deliver the digital economy, which politicians have promised voters.

Making reference to the United Kingdom, Shuter said not only is there more spectrum available, it is broadly spread across a range of spectrum bands to address different use-cases and challenges, adding:
‘‘Soon enough another spectrum auction will take place in the 700 MHz and 3600-3800 MHz spectrum bands.’’

The report noted that South Africa is a very unique country, and spectrum is allocated with conditions, such as minority ownership of the telco.

According to it, there is an on-going conflict between the major telcos and the government regarding the obligations placed on spectrum allocation, but the end result is still the same; a scarcity of an incredibly valuable resource.

But, experts, who gathered at the AfricaCom conference, submitted that if African nations in general, are to compete with other regions in the digital economy, or drive digital inclusion across society, the spectrum conundrum needs to be addressed. But looking at the bigger picture, telcos and governments need to reduce the friction, and create a more collaborative environment in the pursuit of a common objective.

Against the backdrop of spectrum shortage, the GSM Association (GSMA), has also warned that poorly designed assignments have the potential to cause more harm than good.

In its “Auction Best Practice,” paper, the GSMA, which represents the interest of over 800 telecoms operators globally, highlighted some key concerns from recent 4G and 5G spectrum awards globally and offering recommendations to help governments guarantee affordable, high-quality mobile connectivity from spectrum awards.

In the paper, the GSMA noted that auctions have become the dominant mobile spectrum assignment mechanism over the past three decades. They were designed to provide a transparent, impartial and legally robust means of assigning spectrum to those who will use it most efficiently to support competitive, high-quality mobile services. Alternative approaches like administrative awards and lotteries have generally proved less able to assign spectrum in an efficient, impartial and legally robust way. However, the organisation said the benefits of auctions can be lost when they are not properly planned.

Some auctions have failed to assign spectrum despite it being in demand, while others have been contested for artificially inflating prices, which risk harm to consumers. Some have led to claims they are biased in favour of some operators, or for not preventing strategic behaviour, leading to inefficient spectrum distribution. This means effective auction design has become vital to delivering the best possible mobile services, the paper highlights.

According to the Chairman, Association Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Gbenga Adebayo, spectrum licensing will help to achieve the 70 per cent broadband penetration target, but policy will do more towards the targeted 70 per cent penetration by 2021.

He said that granting multiple operational licenses to operators does not guarantee investment in that regard, but implementation of  well -articulated policies that will encourage operators to invest their money.

He said government must go beyond granting of licenses to eliminating those barriers such as bottlenecks in securing ‘right of way’, impediments to smooth network operations- where operators are forced to pay levies that are not legalized, and vandalism.

Former president, Association Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Lanre Ajayi, said making spectrum available is certainly a good idea. ‘‘It will help in addressing the last mile challenges. But the question is, are the investors confident about our investment climate? I think we need to make our environment more investment friendly in addition to making spectrum available to ensure that we do repeat a situation where we will end up with just one bidder.’’


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