Revolutionising Africa’s connectivity as WRC-23 unveils game-changing spectrum milestones

Revolutionising Africa’s connectivity as WRC-23 unveils game-changing spectrum milestones

The World Radiocommunication Conference 2023 (WRC-23) was a landmark event for the global regulation of the radio-frequency spectrum and geostationary-satellite orbits. The conference, which took place in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, from 20 November to 15 December 2023, adopted revisions to the Radio Regulations, the international treaty that governs the use of these scarce and valuable resources.

Significant developments emerged, particularly in the allocation of new spectrum for International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT), which is vital for the advancement of broadband connectivity. The identified spectrum ranges encompass 3,300-3,400 MHz, 3,600-3,800 MHz, 4,800-4,990 MHz, and 6,425-7,125 MHz, with implementation taking place across countries and regions.

In an innovative move, the conference also greenlit the use of high-altitude platform stations (HIBS) – essentially flying cell towers – in the 2 GHz and 2.6 GHz bands. HIBS leverage existing IMT frequencies and devices, requiring minimal infrastructure, making them perfect for bridging the digital divide in remote and rural areas. Furthermore, their ability to maintain connectivity during natural disasters adds another layer of resilience to our communication networks.

These decisions have significant implications for Africa, a continent that faces many challenges in terms of connectivity, digital inclusion, and socio-economic development. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), only about 37% of Africans had access to the internet in 2023, compared to a global average of 67%. Moreover, only about 6% of Africans have access to 5G services, compared to a global average of 38%. The lack of connectivity hampers the delivery of essential services such as health, education, agriculture, and e-government, and limits the opportunities for innovation, entrepreneurship, and job creation.

The new spectrum identified by WRC-23 can help address these gaps by enabling the deployment of more affordable, reliable, and high-quality broadband services across Africa. The low-band spectrum (below 1 GHz) can provide wide-area coverage and indoor penetration, while the mid-band spectrum (in the 3.5 GHz and 6 GHz ranges) can offer higher capacity and faster speeds. These bands can support a range of applications and use cases that can benefit various sectors and segments of society, such as smart agriculture, e-health, e-learning, e-commerce, smart cities, and public safety.

The use of HIBS can also complement terrestrial networks by providing coverage in hard-to-reach areas or in situations where terrestrial infrastructure is damaged or congested. HIBS can operate at altitudes of about 20 km above the Earth’s surface and cover an area of up to several hundred kilometres in diameter. They can be deployed quickly and flexibly to meet changing demand or emergency needs.

However, to realise the full potential of these new spectrum resources, African countries need to take timely and coordinated actions to implement the decisions of WRC-23. This would include a series of strategic steps:

  • Develop national spectrum plans and policies: Regulators should create comprehensive national spectrum plans that align with regional and global harmonisation efforts. These plans should clearly outline how the newly allocated spectrum will be used and managed;
  • Conduct transparent spectrum allocation and licensing processes: Regulators should ensure that the process of spectrum assignment and licensing is transparent and efficient. This can foster competition and innovation in the telecoms sector;
  • Ensure protection and coexistence of services: Regulators need to put measures in place to ensure that existing services are protected and that new services can coexist without interference;
  • Promote infrastructure sharing and network interoperability: By promoting infrastructure sharing and network interoperability, regulators can help reduce the cost of network deployment and improve service coverage;
  • Facilitate access to affordable devices and equipment: Regulators can work with manufacturers and service providers to ensure that devices and equipment needed to access the newly allocated spectrum are affordable;
  • Foster an enabling environment: Regulators should foster an enabling environment that encourages investment in and adoption of broadband services. This could involve creating favourable regulatory conditions, providing incentives for investment, and implementing policies that promote digital literacy and internet usage;
  • Regional collaboration: Given the transboundary nature of radio-frequency spectrum, regulators might need to work regionally to ensure harmonised implementation across countries. This could involve collaborating with neighbouring countries and regional bodies to coordinate spectrum use and avoid harmful interference; and
  • Prioritisation: Regulators should prioritise actions that have the greatest potential to improve connectivity and digital inclusion. This could involve focusing on areas with low internet penetration or sectors that can benefit most from improved connectivity, such as education, health, and agriculture.

By taking these steps, regulators can effectively implement the outcomes of WRC-23 and help their countries leverage the benefits of the newly allocated spectrum. This is the starting point for a collective effort to harness the power of spectrum for socio-economic development. For Africa, priorities should include balancing licensed and unlicensed spectrum to enable both 5G and Wi-Fi growth. Allocating more satellite spectrum to reach remote areas is promising and must be considered, as the future will be shaped by emerging technologies.

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