Dr. Bashir Gwandu is the Chairman of Radiocomunications Advisory Group of the International Telecommunications Union, and Executive Commissioner (Technical Services) of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC). In this interview with CHIMA AKWAJA, he speaks on the commission’s plans to support telecom operators with new spectrum, opportunities in mobile broadband and efforts to attract investors into the telecom market.
What are the benefits that broadband technology will add to the lives of Nigerians?
In a country faced with mega cities like Lagos, Kano and Abuja, and with prospective future of digital commerce or rather digital lifestyle whereby we only need mobile devices to manage our lives from purchasing of goods to remote switching and monitoring of homes and home appliances, to intelligent management of transport vehicles and city infrastructure networks, right down to management of taxation, we cannot afford the luxury of not preparing for such future.
We should not only prepare, but must be a nation at the forefront of such preparation in order to cash on the potential benefits early enough. Remember, we cannot store spectrum; thereforfe if we don’t use it today, or rather early, we forgo such an opportunity.
In Africa, and Nigeria in particular, we do not have sufficient terrestrial wired telecom infrastructure such as fibre or copper, and thus rely heavily on wireless, and if we rely on wireless, how can we have broadband with all its attendant benefits if we do not provide sufficient spectrum.
Yes, we can accommodate more of the pent-up demand through better modulation schemes that provide better spectral efficiency.
There might also be some improvement through co-location or through deployment of additional base transceiver station (BTS) or microcells at high capital expenditure in the face of affordability challenges, but, by far, what have proved to be the most effective strategy is by providing additional spectrum to complement such other techniques, and that is why we thought it was time to do something about it.
Let me state here that we had initial opposition from Western and Eastern Europe, but through various technical proposals that we proffered, including those relating to channel plans, we were able to convince them to allow Africa to move forward.
However, we also had major challenges from among our ranks which was very difficult to manage, but what we have chosen to do is to put the country and citizens first, rather than doing nothing in order to make some colleagues happy.
It remains our firm belief that we need to be more forward-looking when it comes to technical and professional decisions because we are paid to make best decisions not for ourselves, as individuals, but for the betterment of the citizenry.
In addition to digital lifestyle coming in the future, the immediate benefit of additional spectrum allocation is good quality services at lower cost, due to lower capital expenditure, improved competition and spectrum harmonization.
Can you summarise the key achievements of your team?
To summarise achievements, we need to look at the proposal we initiated, submitted, and which materialized. We have submitted proposals on the additional spectrum allocation of 694-790MHz on the 700MHz band to Region-1 of the ITU, including, mainly, the African continent under Agenda 1.17.
We requested spectrum allocation on the 800MHz band to Nigeria to provide equal right, with respect to our neigbours, to our CDMA operators operating in the band, under the Agenda 1.17 i.e., through a modification to footnote 5.316A. These include Visafone, Intercellular, Multi-Links, Prestel and others.
We also requested a reduction in the existing constraints on the use of 800MHz band by the same operators so that they can claim protection from interference emanating from services of our neigbouring countries - should that become necessary. We have requested an agenda item at the next conference to discuss possible additional spectrum allocation to accommodate future demand of broadband communications.
Our team opposed spectrum allocation to Mobile Satellite Services (MSS) on the bands currently being used by our fixed microwave links to provide backbone transmission service in order to protect our links from potential interference. But we have proposed reduction in the preference functional dependency (PFD) constraints on the MSS in the 2.4GHz.
We requested improvement in the satellite filling procedure that can improve our chances of getting satellite frequency allocation and reduction in coordination difficulties, that is, reduction in the use of the so-called “Paper Satellites” or misuse of orbital slots. I am happy to say that we have successfully delivered on all the above proposals that we originated in addition to other proposals.
Now, what is the potential significance of 700MHz allocation?
The 700MHz allocation can lead to duplex arrangement of 45MHz uplink (going leg) and 45MHz downlink (return leg) with a minimal duplex spacing of 10MHz. The 45MHz can provide 15MHz assignments into three times.
If we note that the GSM operators, such as MTN, Glo, Airtel and Etisalat - the largest companies in Nigeria, each has only 15MHz assignment in 1800MHz band (which is paired with 5MHz on the 900MHz).
It means that we can either create two to three companies of such sizes, or if the auction is won by such companies, it means they can significantly increase their capacity, improve quality, and also reduce their capital expenditure to only a small fraction of what they are spending today, and the savings of which can be shared with consumers.
A research has indicated that where we can use 8 to 10 base stations on the 1800MHz, we can achieve similar coverage by using two base station on the 700MHz band - meaning that only one-fifth to one-quarter of the current capital expenditure, or thereabout, may be sufficient to provide the same coverage.
An established international research company, Plum, estimates that release of more spectrums can potentially impact positively on Nigeria’s GDP and may lead to the creation of 6.3 million more jobs, assuming that all GDP-related growth results in more jobs and not higher wages.
I will leave you to imagine the impact of that in reducing the number of unemployed restive youth in the country. It is estimated that in-net present value (NPV) terms forgone/lost GDP arising from delay in spectrum release is in the order of $47 billion by 2025.
Even direct revenue to Federation Account that can accrue from Spectrum Auction is going to be lost for the period of delay.
Remember that Etisalat bought 10MHz of 3G spectrum for over $200million and they paid $400million for just 15MHz of 1800MHz paired with 5MHz of 900MHz-band for 2G services. This should provide an idea of the potential sales revenue of the 15MHz of 4G or 5G services.
What next after ITU spectrum allocation on the 700MHz?
As the spectrum allocation has effective date in 2015, it has provided required time to discuss and agree a harmonized channel plan with our neighbours, has offered clear direction to the industry as to where the growth is going to be and which spectrum will become available in the short time frame.
It also provides manufacturers with the required signal to start designing chipset and manufacture necessary electronics en masse. It also provides standard developers such 3GPP to start work on standard development that will allow equipment produced by different vendors to talk to each other by seamlessly interfacing.
It allows countries to clear broadcast stations out of the band 694-790MHz in time for 2015. As for Africa, we have already started working on re-planning our analogue television stations out of the band 694MHz, to 862MHz. As for Nigeria, at the last check two weeks ago, there were 91, 41 and 18 stations in the bands 470-694MHz, 694-790MHz, and 790-862MHz respectively.
On the allocation on the 800MHz, what we have been able to drive is formalization of the use of CDMA on the 850MHz which should provide equal right of protection if their services are interfered with by operators in the neighbouring countries.
Before now, they could not claim any protection and they will be required to shut down any base station that is emitting into neighbouring countries or causing interference; but now they can coordinate with operators on the other side on equal terms.
The reduction in constraints means that investors have much more certainty in respect of regulatory burden and thus can estimate more confidently the return on their investment. This should promote increased investor confidence in that segment of the market and that can translate into more jobs due to inward flow of investment capital.
The request for additional spectrum allocation to accommodate future growth of broadband means that if spectrum is allocated, benefits similar to those for the 700MHz will accrue to the nation.
What kind of difficulty did the African team face?
Despite inter-regional agreement to support the allocation, a reservation statement was entered by a group of European countries, comprising the Federal Republic of Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Republic of Hungary, the Republic of Latvia, the Principality of Liechtenstein, the Republic of Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Slovak Republic, the Czech Republic and the Confederation of Switzerland, who stated that they have accepted the compromise on the use of the band 694-790 MHz with great reluctance and on an exceptional basis.
They further stated that they had given weight to the fact that the compromise was made in the spirit of international cooperation and only to satisfy the urgent broadband demand of those countries which made the proposals.
This reservation of some European countries clearly underlines the difficulty that African delegates have faced in the bid to promote ICT growth and drive home the consequent opportunities ICT sector presents, so as to address economic challenges in the continent.
On the issue of orbital slots, what did the Nigerian team propose?
Among many other proposals made by Nigerian team was an important International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT)-related proposal and an accompanying resolution which was adopted by the African Group as common proposal - to consider additional spectrum allocations to the mobile service on a primary basis and identification of additional frequency bands for IMT and related regulatory provisions, to facilitate the development of terrestrial mobile broadband applications.
The proposal was also favourably considered and it was accepted to be the agenda item 1.1 for the WRC, 2015.
On the satellite issues, concerns were raised by African delegates on the possible misuse of radio regulations provisions that could result in a single spacecraft being used to bring into use frequency assignments for multiple satellite networks at multiple orbital locations within a short period of time (i.e. satellite hopping to protected filings for the so-called paper-satellites), and thus, deprive other countries, especially newcomers from Africa the chance to secure the unoccupied satellite orbital slot.
The WRC-12 decided to provide further guidance through a text that was drafted by a team, including me, stating that a frequency assignment to a space station in the geostationary-satellite orbit shall be considered as having been brought into use when a space station in the geostationary-satellite orbit, with the capability of transmitting or receiving that frequency assignment, has been deployed and maintained at the notified orbital position for a continuous period of 90 days.
If after launch, the satellite failed before attaining 90 days, then the three-year suspension rule automatically applies. Any frequency assignment (orbital slot) not brought into use within seven years of filing at ITU-R shall be cancelled by Radio Regulation Board of the ITU.
Wherever a satellite is moved from a satellite slot or de-orbited, within six months the notifying administration shall inform ITU-R of the date on which such use was suspended.
For a satellite that fails, the date on which the recorded assignment is brought back into use (with a replacement satellite) shall be not later than three years from the date of suspension.
In addition, whenever an administration brings into use frequency assignments at a given orbital location using an already in-orbit satellite, the ITU-R should request for information indicating all other previous orbital locations/frequency assignments brought into use with the same satellite.