MACRA demystifies spectrum management
By BiztechAfrica – Feb. 28, 2014, 6:28 p.m.
By Gregory Gondwe, Blantyre, Malawi
South African open technology entrepreneur Steven Song defines Spectrum as simply the range of possible frequencies for electromagnetic radiation, and he further states that by varying the size and frequency of radio waves, information can be sent wirelessly.
For decades Malawi has used the spectrum for frequencies ranging from that of telecommunication to broadcasting and in Malawi like is the rest of the world, usage of spectrum to allocate frequencies was first achieved with voice and telegraph.
“But [it]has now evolved into digital communication capable of transmitting anything that can be represented digitally from documents to sound to video,” says Song, the founder of ‘Village Telco’, a social enterprise that builds low-cost Wi-Fi mesh VoIP technologies to deliver affordable voice and Internet in underserviced areas.
In layman’s terms, Spectrum is the space through which radio broadcasting stations will use to transmit into the wireless receivers; this is also the space where television stations will use to relay their pictures and sound to reach the audience through the television sets. It is the same space that telecommunication companies will use so that one person calling another will be able to get to the one s/he is calling for the two to talk to each other.
Since Malawi has now seen the proliferation of radio and television stations as well as the growth of telecommunication companies, the Malawi Communication Regulatory Authority (Macra) has had to answer the question of whether it will be able to provide space for all these radio, television station as well as telecommunication companies to operate without interfering in each other’s ‘space’.
There is what others in the industry are calling ‘myth’ that in future there won’t be any space for any more radio, television stations as well as telecommunication companies and this is why Macra among its numerous functions has come about to demystify this myth.
Allocation and management of ‘Space’
MACRA’s Director of Telecommunication, Lloyd Momba, says for the authority to achieve this, it launched two projects; one called “The Spectrum Audit and RE-farming” and another one called “The Television White Spaces” (TVWS).
“The TVWS project is being done in coordination with the e-communications Research Group (eCRG) of the Physics Department of Chancellor College [of the University of Malawi],” says Momba.
On the other hand he said the Re-farming project is being coordinated by Macra in conjunction with operators through a consultant.
Re-Farming against TVWS spectrum
There has been an argument in the telecommunication sector elsewhere that Re-farming spectrum which involves moving existing spectrum holders from one band to another band is notoriously painful and long-winded.
The argument therefore supports the television white space spectrum which it says can re-use unused television spectrum without moving any existing spectrum holders.
“Television spectrum is capable of penetrating obstacles such as trees and building much more easily than Wi-Fi spectrum or WiMax for that matter,” says Song.
He says this means that it will be much easier to deploy this technology and it can be deployed a lot more affordably which could be more profitable to countries like Malawi.
In August 2013, Macra issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for conducting a spectrum audit and re-farming in the country, which is one of the many ways of ensuring that there would be enough space for every player.
“One of the key factors to the development of ICT industry is the efficient utilization of the spectrum resources,” says MACRA in the public notice that signposted the coming of this specific project. “Spectrum is a vital and scarce resource which is available equally in all countries throughout the world.”
The authority says this is in line with the Government of Malawi’s decision to place highly the ICT services as one of its key agendas for national development.
For Macra to achieve this, it needed ICT expertise and this led to hunting for a reputable, qualified and experienced consultant who would help the regulator to eventually be able to manage and utilize the radio frequency spectrum in full cognizance that it is supposed to be done at the national, regional and international level in coordination with internationally recognised bodies like the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
Identifying the Consultant
MACRA’s Spectrum Monitoring Manager Patrick Musiyapo says government, through Macra, managed to identify the consultant through a tender process.
“Interconnect Communications Consultants was the successful bidder,” says Musiyapo.
He says the Interconnect Communications is a consulting company specialized in communications sector strategy, policy and associated regulatory frameworks.
The consultant’s key services, he says, cover access and interconnection, numbering, spectrum management, next generation networks (NGN), wireless networks and ICT development.
“Interconnect has assisted governments in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa to introduce telecommunications sector reform, establish independent regulatory authorities and develop fair and transparent regulatory processes together with supporting legislation,” says Musiyapo.
“They also advise operators on regulatory compliance and business planning issues and act as specialist advisers,” he adds.
In settling for Interconnect Communications Consultants, Macra says has once more demonstrated its desire for professional and high quality service.
The lead consultant Dr Davood Molkdar, 52, does not only boast a doctorate degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering from the University of Leeds but he is also a multi-award winner in his field.
As Spectrum Management Expert, Molkdar is not only a fellow of Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) but has more than 30 publications and 11 patents registered to his name.
He has worked in United Kingdom, China, United States of America and France. Among others he has a recognition award from Motorola for developing EDGE technical understanding across Motorola and contribution to the related products development, received in 2001.
Why two Projects at a time
In the bid to efficiently utilise the scarce spectrum resource Musiyapo says Macra is trying out a number of projects so that more economic and social development is realised through the usage of spectrum.
As rightly explained by Momba, spectrum Re-farming is one of those programmes and whitespace research is yet another.
Song answers the question so what are the television white spaces?
He says back when radio spectrum was first allocated for television broadcast in the early part of the 20th century, broadcast and broadcast reception technology was crude by today’s standards.
“In essence, broadband transmitters had to “shout” because the reception devices were a bit deaf,” he says analogically.
In order to cope with these loud services, he says regulators decided that gaps should be left in spectrum assignments as “guard” bands to prevent television signals from interfering with each other.
“These “guard” bands are also known as television white spaces because of the “white” noise signal that appears on a television in these unused bands,” explained Song.
Musiyapo therefore explains that the whitespace research is the project where Macra is working in collaboration with Chancellor College being represented by Dr. Chomora Mikeka as the project coordinator while Jonathan Pinifolo is the Project Manager from the Macra side.
“This is the research that is aiming as studying the possibility of utilizing the unused frequency spectrum within the TV band,” he says. “Malawi is the second country in SADC region after South Africa to implement this project.”
Progress on the RE-Farming Project
Musiyapo says work on the Spectrum Audit and RE-farming project has started in earnest.
“Initially the consultant met the operators to have an inception meeting,” he says.
So far, Musiyapo says information about the ICT industry in Malawi was collected and desk analysis was conducted between June and August.
“During the last two weeks of September the lead consultant Dr. Davood Molkdar made a visit to Malawi during which period he collected more information from the operators regarding their spectrum utilization,” disclosed Musiyapo.
He says an analysis of this helped to determine the spectrum requirements of each operator.
He however said online interaction between Macra, the consultant and the operators will continue until sometime in December when another visit by the consultant will be made followed by the final report and recommendations.
What it means is that Malawi is slowly but surely taking the big steps to steadily increase in spectral efficiency in wireless technologies where it will be able to join the developing world where every year it is able to pack more data into fewer spectrums with less power.
“This efficiency which is typically expressed as bits per hertz per km2 shows that while spectrum is not infinite, the trend towards efficiency increase shows no immediate sign of slowing down,” says Song.
“In fact, wireless pioneer Martin Cooper has coined a law similar to Moore’s Law in which he argues that spectral efficiency has doubled every 30 months since Marconi patented the wireless telegraph in 1897,” adds Song in his write-up titled ‘Many Possibilities’.
Macra hopes that with spectral efficiency through the project it will be able to hold on to this scarce and vital resource and put it to efficient and effective usage.
“With the availability of such information, Government’s primary objective of ensuring competitive ICT services by allowing more players and modern services in the market will be realised,” declares Macra.
Song says gone are the days when wireless communication interference was an easy problem to solve because the range of available spectrum was vast and demand was comparatively small.
“Interference could be solved by making sure that people using spectrum in the same geographic region were allocated individual bands of spectrum that were well apart from each other in the spectrum band,” he says.
Now Macra says for spectrum management to be all encompassing there is need to monitor and have a clear determination of spectrum usage in tandem with government’s development goals as stipulated on the Malawi Development Growth Strategy (MGDS).
Musiyapo says the cost of doing a re-farming could translate into how much Macra will pay the consultant on one hand and how much the operators will be implementing the would-be proposed changes on the other.
However he said those operators that have managed to meet the consultant have already started benefiting from the free advice and consultancy that has been provided.
“Already some operators have gotten new insights into ways of utilizing the existing infrastructure while reshaping their business models,” he said.
He said until the process is complete the country can really not appreciate the need to carry out these projects.
“However looking at what has be collected and analysed so far, it is clear that in some areas there is no efficiency in the spectrum utilization and through this exercise we shall be able to achieve the desired efficiency,” declared Musiyapo.