By Jennigay Coetzer – Business Day, 20 June, 2012

The limited wireless spectrum that has been released for commercial use in South Africa is a thorn in the side of industry players, because more is badly needed to ease network bottlenecks and support new services. “The delays in the allocation of the available wireless spectrum in South Africa is embarrassing when other African countries have forged ahead with this,” says Ian Isenberg, business development manager at Internet Solutions.

Greater access to wireless spectrum will enable service providers to deliver innovative, cost effective last mile wireless solutions and provide more cost effective services to rural areas, says Isenberg. Dawie de Wet, CEO of Q-Kon says the allocation of wireless spectrum can help to relieve the current bottlenecks on the existing last mile infrastructure that links customers to their ISPs.

But to have any significant effect, Sentech needs to complete the migration of its television broadcast network infrastructure from analogue to digital. This will free up spectrum, especially on the 700 megahertz frequency, which provides a good balance between distance and speed.

“For Africa, we need long distance reach and reasonable speeds up to 10 megabits per second and the 700 spectrum provides that.” Martin Ferreira, executive head of technical operations at Jasco ICT Solutions says it seems that only four wireless spectrum licenses will be allocated for use of the 2.6 gigahertz spectrum, which supports broadband services such as the next generation Long Term Evolution (LTE) mobile technology.

Icasa is also talking about taking the 3.5 GHz spectrum away from those that already have it, but are not using it, and redistributing it to smaller operators.” This would allow smaller players to provide services based on LTE or WiMAX wireless technology, especially in outlying areas.

“International companies like Ferrero Roche and Heineken Breweries are setting up operations in rural areas and need connectivity.” Kallie Carlsen, technical director at Maxwell Technology says broadband capacity challenges include making affordable wireless spectrum available to more service providers.

“This would enable service providers like us to bring broadband connectivity to rural areas.” He says some of the spectrum that Icasa is planning to allocate is likely to be opened up to licensed service providers.

However many of them will baulk at paying a licence fee for this spectrum when they can continue to use the unlicensed frequencies for nothing, and few will be able to afford it anyway. “This is why there are so many wireless service providers using the unlicensed frequencies,” says Carlsen.

He says the unlicensed spectrum frequencies are overcrowded in urban areas, but not in rural areas.  While fibre infrastructure is available across the country from large operators, a smaller service provider would need to have 1000 customers to justify the cost of connecting to it, says Carlsen.

“We have to buy a chunk of capacity.” He says it is cheaper to use a satellite broadband service.

It takes huge money to launch and operate a satellite, but the service is costed on a longer term basis. “The satellite owners are not out to make profits from day one,” says Carlsen.

Jennigay Coetzer is a freelance business and technology journalist, and she writes regularly for Business Day. She also runs media training and writing skills workshops, and is the author of A Perfect Press Release – or Not?, a guide to writing and distributing effective press releases, an electronic version of which can be downloaded free from her website: www.jennigay.co.za.

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