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Come on, ICASA – let’s drive new communication tools

Hans van de Groenendaal is Feature Editor of EngineerIT magazine

While regulatory processes in the communication industry are important, they should facilitate – and not hamper – industry fairness and new developments. But at the moment, red tape is holding the whole country back. 

The communication industry evolves fast. There are constant technological developments pushing it forward. 

That’s why regulatory authorities like the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) should be pro-active and agile enough to develop new regulatory frameworks, adjust fee structures and promulgate regulations that track the pace of technological developments. Long ITU and ICASA processes to make new spectrums available (and/or to re-arrange spectrum allocations to meet new developments) are severely hampering the growth of the industry.

Let’s look at a case in point. An excellent example would be E-band – a relatively new addition to the spectrum – which is allocated for fixed point-to-point communication. 

For those who can speak geek, E-band comprises a total of 10GHz in two ranges, namely 71 – 76 GHz and 81 – 86 GHz. This new allocation far exceeds the current, more traditional spectrum for fixed wireless services, and opens up the ability for the communications industry to offer multi-gigabit connectivity that can provide wireless capacity of over 1,000 Mbps. 

Furthermore, one of the key issues currently underlying frequency coordination is interference between various services. E-band has an advantage in that its antennas are somewhat narrower than those used in traditional microwave frequencies, so the risk of interference is virtually non-existent. At 80 GHz, the energy is focused into a pencil-thin beam, which creates a directional transmission that not only minimises the potential for interference, but also enhances link security by making it effectively impossible to intercept or jam without physically blocking the radio frequency path. Bingo.

For those who don’t speak geek, one can put it more simply. E-band is an important development that will help the industry meet the ever-increasing demand for cost-effective and reliable links that are quick to deploy. Fixed, point-to-point wireless systems such as E-band are particularly helpful in their flexibility and speed of deployment, and their full life-cycle costs are better than those of leased-line solutions.

The potential for E-band to simplify and improve the lives of South Africans is therefore enormous. There is a long list of possible E-band applications, including mobile back-haul and aggregation for mobile networks, high-capacity business services, healthcare applications to connect various hospitals and clinics, laboratory networks and access to real-time imaging. In education, E-band systems can connect high-performance campuses and off-site locations.

Issue the first: Licensing

Over-priced licensing is proving a massive challenge. Traditionally, micro-wave licensing schemes are based on occupied bandwidth, which in turn also determines the license fee. The fees increase proportionally along with the size of the channel. So, for example, the fee for a 56 MHz channel would be twice that of a 28 MHz channel. 

For E-band, however, the ITU European Radio-Communication Committee recommendations are written around low-level modulation schemes and very wide bandwidths. This means traditional licensing formulas grossly overprice an 80GHz, 1GHz-wide channel. Unfortunately, in many countries licensing is still based on traditional approaches, resulting in a horrific inflation of the price of E-band. Most of the time, it is completely unaffordable, and simply cannot be used.

Naturally, this negates any value it could bring to the communications industry. It sets us back a step. Technological developments are meant to make things work better, faster; but tying them up in red tape – which entirely lacks common sense and grossly inflates the price – means nobody can benefit.

Not all countries have been so slow on the uptake, mind. Some have adopted a more sensible pricing approach, which has led to large-scale deployment in an otherwise underutilised area of the spectrum. UK regulator OFCOM, for example, has introduced a link registration process, and charges a license fee of £50, which includes the cost of registration of the link for the first year. In the USA, the Federal Communication Commission offers a nationwide license for $895, and maintains a point-to-point link register. To register a link costs $75, and the process takes a day or so. The $75 registration fee gets the operator a license for ten years. 

The only restriction is if the link is near a radio astronomy site, where a more detailed application is required. This worst-case scenario may take up to 30 days to be approved, no more.

So what’s up with ICASA? Why so slow to step up? ICASA should not try to reinvent the wheel, but instead take its lead from countries where regulators have effectively facilitated the deployment of E-band. The benefits would be so important, and so widely felt. And others have shown that it can be done.

Yet in South Africa, it is thus far only possible to carry out pilot studies. Beyond that, ICASA is still applying its mind to how E-band may be regulated, and at what cost.

But it shouldn’t be that hard, ICASA. It’s time for a more proactive approach. Let’s fast-track regulations for a change, so that the country can benefit from new developments.

If this doesn’t happen, the 2020 goal of broadband for all will remain a pipe dream. DM

This article appears courtesy of EE Publishers.


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