Using dynamic spectrum to close the digital divide
Written by: Martha Suárez | Published:
Dynamic Spectrum Alliance president Martha Suárez

Dynamic Spectrum Alliance president Martha Suárez provides an update on the different approaches and projects around the world, highlighting the problems that remain to be solved

The demand for abundant and ultra-fast connectivity is greater than ever before. To ensure there is infrastructure capable of supporting these requirements in urban as well as rural areas, spectrum needs to be efficiently managed to allow next-generation broadband technologies, including 5G, to be possible. Dynamic approaches to spectrum management and shared spectrum access have grown in popularity and maturity, as most clearly shown by the rise of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) in the US.

The mission of dynamic spectrum access advocates is to make regulators and the whole telecommunications industry aware that spectrum abundance unleashes opportunities globally and that spectrum can be widely available for broadband and future technologies through sharing. The results of this being achieved will be far-reaching, such as providing the next 3.5 billion people and 100 billion devices with access to the internet.

The DSA – an industry alliance with a primary focus on spectrum sharing – advocates for laws that lead to more effective utilisation. Its work stimulates wireless innovation for next-generation broadband because less restricted access to spectrum will provide a platform for innovative services and products. This will accelerate an inclusive digital economy and foster an anytime/anywhere access culture that will drive economic growth for all.

Why share spectrum?
Access to communication and connectivity is becoming as important as access to other basic infrastructure. As the world moves online, those in unserved and underserved areas are left behind and the urban-rural divide widens; for those in under-developed countries, access to the internet can bring undeniable benefits, such as affordable quality education and healthcare.

Licensed v unlicensed access to spectrum
Effective utilisation of spectrum is vital to progress broadband technology; as the demand for ultra-fast wireless communication grows, spectrum usage needs to be optimised. Spectrum – a finite resource – is licensed by governments and regulators to network operators. In the case of fixed and mobile communications, through different assignment mechanisms such as auctions, specific bands of spectrum become privately licensed. Network deployment will depend on the interest of the operators, and this exclusive assignment process can result in portions of spectrum going unused.

Last year at the 2018 DSA Global Summit, UK House of Lords member David Willetts revealed that five years after an auction of 2.6GHz spectrum, 98 per cent of this band remained unused. This is hugely limiting when considering the fact that mobile data traffic is increasing exponentially around the world. With more and more devices coming online, more spectrum needs to be freed up for commercial use to allow these devices to use the next generation of broadband effectively.

One of the biggest conflicts is the argument between setting aside bands of spectrum for shared access and auctioning spectrum off to commercial operators and other interested parties. Historically, spectrum has been distributed in a way that has often been exclusive and limiting. Instead, spectrum should be opened to new players wherever sharing is possible.

Recently, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed rules to allow unlicensed (also known as licence exempt) devices to operate in the 6GHz band, without interfering with the operation of the licensed services already using this spectrum. This is one of many recent developments around the world that demonstrates a trend towards favouring dynamic, shared spectrum use.

Steve Song, senior fellow, access and digital inclusion at Mozilla, shared spectrum advocate at the Network Startup Resource Center in the US and DSA member, recently analysed how auctions have brought very little to Africa in recent years. In Africa, regulators set reserve prices which are often upwards of tens of millions of dollars. This acts as a firewall to competition. The upfront charge for spectrum is an immense disincentive to the innovation that comes from small businesses; for example, who would otherwise have a keen interest to connect people in rural areas which many larger operators do not see as profitable enough to justify investment? Moreover, the high reserve prices and the high cost of network development make connectivity more expensive for the final users.

This is not an isolated issue and countries across the world are struggling with unused spectrum, including the USA and UK, which are still using auction models to allocate spectrum.

Future technologies including next-generation broadband services such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G also require access to vastly more spectrum at a substantially lower cost. Without sharing, the availability of these new technologies will be limited to elites. According to a report published by the ITU in 2018, a viable case for investment in 5G will be more challenging outside densely populated areas, especially in the early years of deployment, and this will potentially widen the digital divide.

There are numerous examples of applications and use-cases proving the impact on people and communities when they have access to affordable connectivity. Just in agriculture, one can look at examples such as Digital Green, a project which brings farmer training videos in 50 languages to rural areas. Other applications can reduce mortality rates; for example, telemedicine, remote diagnosis and IoT applications are cases where thousands of devices may be used in a single deployment, such as through drone-based scanning.

Current dynamic spectrum projects

There are a multitude of dynamic and shared spectrum projects under way around the world. One in particular is 5G RuralFirst, a co-innovation project led by DSA member Cisco. Funded by the UK government, the project is trialling 5G connectivity in some of the most challenging rural areas. 5G RuralFirst aims to connect the unconnected through research, encourage long-term investments from governments, policymakers and operators, and engage rural communities.

Whitespace is a UK-based company that has been building and testing TV White Space (TVWS) technology and infrastructure in some of the most rural locations of the UK. TVWS is suited to use-cases where traditional fixed-line services are not available or do not work for end-users, such as extremely rural and isolated areas where the terrain and location stop operators from connecting households to high-speed internet. TVWS operates on a very low frequency, meaning that it can travel through trees, buildings and even landscapes such as hills.

Most recently, Whitespace’s work in Scotland allowed some rural residents to receive connection speeds of up to 30Mbps, a transformative change from previous connection speeds of less than 2Mbps. Whitespace’s mix of TVWS and fixed wireless access suited this kind of environment due to the long-range nature of the technology and its ability to combat challenging terrain. This work showcases the potential for rural applications of dynamic spectrum sharing across the world.

Recent work of the DSA
It is absolutely necessary for all divisions of the broadband industry to come together to resolve spectrum issues, and the DSA encourages this by bringing operators, regulators, governments and alliances together on regular occasions. Collaboration across all levels will allow the industry to find the fairest and most sustainable solutions to support spectrum sharing. The DSA is constantly addressing the various issues surrounding spectrum sharing by hosting workshops and events, releasing reports and generating responses to government and regulator consultations. The DSA will bring together its Seventh Annual Global Summit on 27 June in Washington, D.C. to provide further opportunity for discussion and collaboration.

In terms of specific spectrum bands, the DSA is currently focusing on expanding the opportunities for TVWS around the globe. As an alliance, we also view TVWS as a crucial technology to help bridge the digital divide and bring connectivity to those that are still without. DSA is also supporting sharing opportunities such as CBRS in
the US, the 6GHz band for Wi-Fi and the sharing of millimetre-wave spectrum.

At the end of 2018, the DSA, in collaboration with The Internet Society Chapter Ghana, as well as ATCON Nigeria, organised workshops in Ghana and Nigeria. With the support of industry leaders, regulators and key members of government in the regions, the workshops facilitated the progression of TVWS technology to ultimately provide more people with access to the internet. The TVWS regulatory framework is part of the Ghanaian government’s plan to pursue digitalisation and transform access to information through wider digital inclusion. The implementation of the framework will see the deployment of TVWS technology to connect the unconnected.

Following proposed rulemakings from the FCC in 2019, the DSA produced a report in March arguing that automated spectrum management databases and algorithms have reached a tipping point for adoption worldwide and are the critical public policy tool to achieve low-cost and ultra-fast wireless broadband connectivity as both consumer and business demand grows. Automated Frequency Coordination (AFC) is vital to allowing more efficient shared use of under-utilised spectrum bands, while simultaneously protecting incumbent services from interference. The DSA report details the integral role that AFC systems play in making wireless connectivity more accessible, fast and affordable through the efficient allocation of national spectrum resources.

This report also highlights the potential benefits to regulators if they choose to adopt automated spectrum management tools. AFC systems are the key to unlocking unused spectrum capacity by automatically searching databases for radio frequencies that are available for wireless devices to use at a given location and time. These systems also allow for the consistent protection of incumbent licensees, can monitor and enforce certification rules and can collect data to inform future policy-making. AFC will greatly expand the supply of wireless connectivity that is fast becoming a critical input for most industries and economic activity, as well as enable lower transaction costs and allowing for more efficient spectrum use. The FCC is currently considering the use of AFC systems to substantially increase spectrum capacity in several bands for both licensed and unlicensed use. Similarly, the European Union and UK currently have ongoing consultations to use AFC systems for improved shared spectrum access.

The ultimate hope for the DSA is to connect the 3.5 billion people that are still unconnected through the widespread publication of simple regulations that will facilitate access to spectrum with light licensing or ideally without licences. In countries that take this approach, the barriers to entry for operators to use unlicensed spectrum need to be as low and affordable as possible. If this becomes a reality, this will stimulate investment for new and existing projects in ever more remote and hard-to-reach areas.

The DSA believes that the implementation of alternative technologies that allow service providers to reach the unconnected and underserved is critical in closing the digital divide around the world.

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