Digital Dividend for bridging Digital Divide

Spectrum is a scarce resource and hence the operators scramble to garner as much as they can. In the coming few years, unprecedented amount of spectrum will be freed up in the switchover from analogue to digital terrestrial TV which is better known as the Digital Dividend. The spectrum is getting freed as digital TV is much more spectrum efficient than analogue TV.

The Digital Dividend spectrum is located between 200 MHz and 1GHz. This spectrum band offers an excellent balance between transmission capacity and distance coverage. GSMA claims that if just 25%, or around 100MHz, of the spectrum currently used by analogue TV (470 – 862 MHz) was re-allocated to mobile communications, the mobile industry could dramatically speed up the rollout of broadband communications and increase coverage. However, Analsys Mason, in its report to European Commission identified 5 potential areas for usage of digital spectrum

  1. Digital Terrestrial TV
  2. Broadcast Mobile TV
  3. Commercial Wireless Broadband services, both to fixed location and mobile devices
  4. Wireless Broadband services for public protection and disaster relief (PPDR)
  5. Services ancillary to broadcasting and programme making (SAB/SAP)

In my opinion, the most appropriate use of freed spectrum would be to take the mobile broadband to the masses especially in the rural areas and far flung areas. There is a digital divide amongst developed and developing countries and w;ithin each country between the urban and rural areas. The excellent propagation capacity at low frequencies means fewer base stations are required leading to a cost effective network roll-out with wide and in-building coverage. It is estimated that mobile broadband in 2100 MHz band is 3 times more expensive than that in 700 MHz band (Refer the Capex chart below from GSMA).

Benefits of Mobile Broadband

There are several benefits of mobile broadband:

  • Economic Development – there are reports that suggest that with every 10% increase in household broadband penetration, the GDP growth can go up by up to  1.4% (source: McKinsey). Bringing broadband penetration levels in emerging markets to today’s Western European levels could potentially add USD 300-420 billion in GDP and generate 10-14 million jobs.  Mobile broadband would help increase the broadband penetration faster as the mobile penetration is much higher than PC penetration.
  • Mobile Broadband can be used for tele-medicine, education and general information to farmers, fishermen, etc. which would lead to prosperity in rural areas and among lower income groups. This is a direct result of productivity increase due to broadband usage.
  • Development of human capital as internet can bridge the knowledge gap
  • Mobile broadband is cheaper than fixed broadband as the last mile connectivity does not require laying of copper wires for mobile broadband. This means that not only the cost is less but also the deployment is faster.

There are many impediments to allocation of spectrum to mobile operators. Most of the countries are yet to make up their mind on the spectrum allocation, also the timelines vary across countries for switch over from analogue TV to digital TV. In Oct’07, the World Radiocommunications Conference (WRC) discussed the issue of allocation of digital dividend spectrum and agreed to identify a chunk of UHF spectrum for mobile broadband services, and a chunk of spectrum in the higher frequency bands to create the capacity required for the next generation of advanced mobile services. The following UHF band identifications were made at WRC 07:

Spectrum bands allocated to mobile
450-470 MHz band
  • No intended use in US and Canada
  • Will not be implemented in most European (CEPT) countries
698-862 MHz band
  • Region 2 (N+S America) and
  • Region 3 – nine countries (inc Japan, China, and India)
790-862 MHz band
  • Regions 1 (Europe, Africa and Middle East)
  • Region 3 (all other Asia Pacific)
2.3-2.4 GHz band
  • No intended use in US and Canada
  • Will not be implemented in most European (CEPT) countries
3.4-3.6 GHz band
  • Region 1 (EMEA): allocation to mobile on a primary basis and identification for IMT in 82 countries by country footnote
  • In Region 2 (Americas): allocation to mobile on a primary basis in 14 countries (not in US/Canada)
  • Region 3: allocation to mobile on a primary basis and identification for IMT in some countries

Despite the WRC recommendation, there are a few countries that are planning to adopt their own distinctive band plans for the UHF spectrum rather than coordinating their spectrum allocations with other countries. Given the multiplicity of spectrum bands across regions, there is a need for harmonization of spectrum bands to keep the cost low. The key reason for success of GSM has been the standardization of spectrum bands which kept the terminal costs down. However, in case of mobile broadband, there are multiple frequency bands and to enable roaming, the handset would need to work on all or most of the frequency bands. Frequency harmonization can drive down terminal costs by as much as 50%.

In my opinion, the regulators across the world should allocate the digital dividend spectrum to mobile broadband for bridging the digital divide without any further delay. There is a need to keep the service and terminals affordable that can only be achieved if consensus is attained on allocating the 650-862 MHz for LTE. Given the scarcity of spectrum, it is important for Governments to taken the decision of switchover from analogue to digital TV and the mobile broadband can be used as one of the channels for TV.

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