Telecom Department to Seek Trai’s Views on Allowing Spectrum Trading

Should National Telecom Regulators Impose Buildout Requirements on Operators?


Photo credit: fingle / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

In the mobile operator space in many countries, the national regulators are imposing so-called “buildout requirements” as a license condition on many wireless providers. In some countries, these requirements are restricted to licenses awarded by the auction process (e.g., cellular access spectrum) or block allocations while in others these conditions are attached to the majority of licenses.

Where buildout requirements are employed, a license typically has a clause that requires the licensee to build out a network/link or specified portion of a network within a certain period of time, with penalties imposed for failure to do so.

The rationale behind imposing these requirements is to ensure that after spectrum is assigned it is put to its intended use without delay. By doing this, or so the theory goes, bidders are discouraged from acquiring spectrum with the sole intent of blocking competitors’ activities without themselves offering service. Of course, the ultimate goal is the protection of spectrum—a finite and precious resource. There is no reason buildout requirements cannot be attached to any license grant, assuming that the detail of the requirements recognizes any constraints of the application for which the spectrum is sought.

Nevertheless, Aviat Networks is strongly against auctions and block allocations, but where these are a necessity then buildout requirements must be part of any award, with strong enforcement rules. The problem is that with strong enforcement operators and regulators can be at loggerheads and get tied up in court with lawsuits and countersuits for years. For example, in the U.S. you have the case of Fibertower. The FCC claims that Fibertower deliberately underbuilt its network and so moved to revoke its spectrum licenses. With the regulator moving against the operator, it came under insurmountable financial pressure and filed for bankruptcy. But even now, the operator’s creditors are fighting the FCC in order to recoup frequencies valued at more than US$100 million. So it is questionable whether this actually works in practice.

Microwave is the point
Focusing on point-to-point microwave, let’s examine the approach taken in two different countries. In the United States, for traditional link-by-link allocation, the FCC imposes an 18-month deadline by which time the link in question needs to be in service. However, in the United Kingdom, Ofcom imposes no such deadline. For certain applications, certain routes and sites are critical and can quickly become “full.” If these key locations are being filled by license applications that are not being translated into operational services, then this spectrum is effectively wasted as no one else can use it, nor is there any service being offered. Spectrum wasted in this manner reduces overall spectrum efficiency, and all spectrum authorities are motivated to ensure that spectrum is used in the most efficient way possible.

Of course having these rules is fine, but what happens when the rules are breached? In some cases, an operator will apply for an extension prior to the expiration of the original deadline; this may or may not be granted. However, the real test is what happens when the deadline passes. Ideally, what should happen is that the license(s) in question would be revoked and the associated spectrum made available for reallocation. Furthermore, if the spectrum in question was originally made available by block allocation or auction, then again, ideally, this spectrum should be returned to the pool of spectrum available for link-by-link licensing.

Additionally in shared bands, i.e., spectrum shared by the Fixed Service (FS) and the Fixed Satellite Service (FSS) should be governed by the same requirements in this instance. Therefore, unused/defunct FSS allocations/licenses should also be revoked with the spectrum being made available for reuse. In the case of FSS locations, this can have a significant effect owing to the geographic full-arc protection area that is usually associated with earth stations.

The alternative viewpoint is that the current buildout requirements are counterproductive, in their aim to foster efficient use of spectrum. One reason cited for this view is that it takes time for an equipment supply ecosystem to develop, which will serve the spectrum users. However, when we examine this claim more carefully, it seems that this is often used where the spectrum has been awarded to a single user either by block allocation or by auction. We have written before about how auctions and block allocations are unsuitable for point-to-point microwave, and the claim above is a direct result of this process, which negatively impacts the number of operators. In turn, that reduces the ranks of equipment vendors, leading to thinner competition and, therefore, decreased incentive for innovation. This situation is made worse if the operator in question chooses a band plan that is nonstandard in terms of either existing U.S. or international arrangements.

Signal termination
In the final analysis, it does not serve any stakeholders’ goals to have valuable spectrum allocated but unutilized. Thus, having buildout requirements would appear to be a good idea. But along with that, an effective mechanism for reclaiming and making available to others spectrum that runs afoul of these rules is paramount to making the process work for the Greater Good. In Aviat’s view, buildout requirements are a valuable tool in ensuring spectrum efficiency and as such, their use should be seriously considered in all countries.

Ian Marshall
Regulatory Manager
Aviat Networks

Lessons of LTE Africa 2013: Bringing Broadband Back to Basics

Cell tower with microwave: many lessons were taught and learned at LTE Africa, Aviat's Siphiwe Nelwamondo reports.

Photo credit: Jeff Kubina / Foter / CC BY-SA

Africa’s only dedicated LTE event, LTE Africa 2013, took place in Cape Town this July 2013, bringing operators, vendors, mobile device makers, regulators and standardization bodies together under one roof to discuss LTE. On the agenda were the opportunities LTE can bring, obstacles to deployment, monetization challenges, current African success stories and future directions that LTE may take in Africa.

At the conference, operators grappled with the opportunity they face with LTE. What emerged as the main challenges for operators were spectrum, monetization and device availability—at the right price—for the African market.

In many exchanges, policymakers and regulators were beseeched to make spectrum available for LTE. Dr. Ernest Ndukwe, former CEO of the Nigerian Communications Commission, said, “Unless African leaders create an environment which encourages broadband network investments and makes it easy for companies to roll out broadband services, the situation is unlikely to change in the near future.” Operators were equally concerned about monetization of LTE so as to be able to recover their CAPEX—not to mention OPEX. (Others have not fully recovered their investments on 3G yet!)

Nonetheless, they are now expected to move to LTE. It was clear that operators would need to innovate how they do business by implementing new pricing strategies such as “value bundling” solutions, which would move them away from the cost-per-megabyte pricing tariff they firmly cling to today. Finally, a mobile device priced correctly for the African market has been earmarked as the enabler needed for massive adoption of LTE in Africa.

However, the conference was not all gloom and doom as operators who have successfully implemented LTE, such as Smile, MTC and others, shared information on how they made it possible. They highlighted how they implemented LTE. One of the key areas they focused on was in what way they backhaul LTE traffic.

Successful implementations revealed that for Africa—considering Africa’s demographics—practical and cost-effective implementation of LTE does not allow for 100 percent fiber backhaul, especially since realistic throughput demands of a typical three-sector LTE site max out at about 150 Mbps. With microwave systems easily able to reach 400 Mbps and even 2Gbps, microwave is more than capable of catering to an LTE site’s requirements and is undoubtedly the technology of choice for LTE backhaul except at sites where fiber already exists.

Microwave has cost benefits when deploying in areas lacking fiber, and it can be a cost-effective way to connect rural areas. Microwave also has the benefits of being quicker-to-deployment compared to the trenching needed for fiber. By 2017, industry analysts foresee that microwave backhaul will account for more than 50 percent of all LTE cell sites in Africa.

Siphiwe Nelwamondo
Technical Marketing Manager, South Africa
Aviat Networks