News Column

Digital dividend for LTE in Middle East — a year to go

July 7, 2014

The technology that enables users to access high speed Internet on their mobiles is called Long Term Evolution (LTE). LTE is the buzzword in the Middle Eastern telecom circles.

Accessing the Internet on the mobile phones has almost become the norm here in the Middle East. A large proportion of people have mobiles and tablets with a data connection and the use of social networking, watching videos and playing online games is on an ever rising spiral.

The technology that enables users to access high speed Internet on their mobiles is called Long Term Evolution (LTE). LTE is the buzzword in the Middle Eastern telecom circles. Most major operators have either already launched LTE or are gearing up for such launches. One of the most recent LTE announcements in the region comes from Pakistan where the spectrum to launch the next generation LTE service was auctioned in April and the operator CMPak Zong emerged as the sole winner. Now, in the context of these LTE launches, it is important to note that most of the LTE announcements are between the spectrum ranges of 1.8GHz and 2.6GHz. For example, LTE in UAE is in the 2.6GHz (etisalat) and 1.8GHz (etisalat and du) bands. Similarly, in Kuwait, all the three operators (Zain, Wataniya and Viva) use the 1.8GHz band. So would Zong in Pakistan. The story in most other markets is also similar.

These high (supra 1GHz) spectrum bands are great for proving mobile coverage in open urban areas, however they have and inherent limitation they are not best suited for penetrating buildings very well, which leads to patchy indoor coverage. This is one of the primary reasons for users experiencing a loss or slowness of Internet connection when they enter their homes or offices.

Users of mobile broadband expect full utility from their connections whether they are indoors, outdoors or on the move. However, in the current setup, LTE deployments in the supra 1GHz spectrum bands can lead to poorer in-building connectivity and, thus, erode customer experience.

This is where the lower sub-1GHz band (such as 700MHz, 800MHz and/or 900MHz etc) comes into the picture. When operators use these sub-1GHz band for mobile deployment, the area under mobile coverage increase by about two to three times as compared to using the over 1GHz band (such as 1.8GHz and/or 2.6GHz etc). Further, the sub-1GHz bands are also great for in-building / indoor coverage. For these two twin reason, deployments in these sub-1GHz also turn out to be economical for the operators over the long run.

The only problem with using the sub-1GHz spectrum bands is their availability. Although, there have been some LTE announcements in the 900MHz band (most notably the planned LTE auction in Bahrain for 900MHZ, 1.8GHz, 2.1GHz and 2.6GHz bands), currently, the 800MHz and 700MHz bands are reserved exclusively for analogue TV broadcasting services in the region.

Spectrum directly impacts the speed, capacity and reach of mobile broadband services. Unless governments choose to grant operators access to such spectrum, the result will be slower, more expensive mobile connections at a time when operators are striving to deliver ubiquitous, high-speed, low-cost access.

Thus, mobile operators have been lobbying hard to allow these sub-1GHz bands to be used for mobile communications. But for this to happen, these 800MHz and 700MHz bands needs to be freed up form TV broadcasting. The 700MHz band, in particular, if available, can be a key catalyst in promoting the mass adoption of LTE in the region.

This can be achieved through a digital transition which is called 'Analogue Switch-Off', and this will move TV broadcasting from analogue to digital media. The spectrum that thus will be freed up, and will continue to be freed up in the coming years, by this switchover from analogue to digital, is known as the 'Digital Dividend'.

Digital dividend policies have already been undertaken in other parts of the world, most notably in the US as well as some nations in Europe such as France and Germany etc. These nations have already freed up some of their sub-1 GHz spectrum and auctioned it off to mobile operators. The Middle Eastern operators too have been particularly active in lobbying for formalising an analogue switch-off plan. Among the pioneers in this space was the UAE. The UAE Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) was among the first regulators in the region to propose an allocation for mobile operators in the 700MHz band. The move was widely been welcomed by all stakeholders in the country's telecom ecosystem.

In May 2012, the UAE TRA announced plans to vacate sub-1GHz (694862MHz band) spectrum allow some parts of it to be used by mobile operators by June 15 2015 barely a year from now. This was covered in the TRA's 'Terrestrial Digital TV Switchover' plan. Further, The UAE is also working at the GCC level for implementing a GCC Regional Plan to accelerate the switchover process.

Further, following the UAE's example, other countries as well are coming up with similar analogue switch-off plans in line with the UAE's 2015 timelines. For example, nations such as Oman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia too have similar plans to completely move to digital TV broadcasting, and thus, freeing up spectrum for mobile operators by 2015. In the next one year, as we approach the switch-off deadline, the transition from analogue to digital terrestrial TV broadcasting will present governments, broadcasters, regulators, mobile operators and the general public at large with immense new opportunities. This will especially help create an environment that will boost the overall LTE ecosystem and adoption in the region.

The writer is a UAE-based strategy consultant specialising in the telecoms industry. Views expressed by him are his own and do not reflect the newspaper's policy.

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Source: Khaleej Times (United Arab Emirates)

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