Radio frequencies: Do they hold the key to cheap internet?

Wednesday, March 1st, 2023 04:27 | By

With about 60 per cent of Kenya’s population unable to connect to the internet, a new report has found that enabling the use of an unutilised Radio Frequency (RF) spectrum can be a solution to deliver broadband connectivity to communities that currently have poor internet connectivity.

A recent report dubbed Gap Analysis Study on Spectrum Sharing-Kenya 2022 by @iLabAfrica — Strathmore University and Dynamic Spectrum Alliance (DSA) shows that utilising RF spectrum known as Spectrum Sharing (SS) or DSA is another way of boosting internet access for rural Kenya.

“With human and machine-driven demand for information capacity and data exchange perpetually increasing, consequently presenting challenges for mobile and wireless communication systems, SS postulates an approach that is more viable and economically attractive,” reads part of the report that was recently handed over to the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA).

Opportunistic access

The report adds that SS does this by allowing opportunistic access to locally available, but an unused spectrum. In turn, it helps solve the spectrum scarcity problem, meeting the needs of the explosive growth of mobile devices as well as the Internet of Things (IoT).

“Spectrum sharing means to make more spectrum available for services whose growth is in the national interest, without upsetting too much the existing users of the spectrum. DSA ensures that such sharing is organised among users and the allocation can change in time depending on the demands of the systems that are sharing,” reads the report.

Studies across various regimes have shown that many RF spectrum bands are often underutilised even in densely populated urban areas. Hence, SS introduces a technique that can allow unlicensed devices (or license-exempt devices) to share the RF spectrum with other licensed services.

Specifically, the license-exempt devices can access the white space spectrum (which refers to those spectrums that are unused in a particular location at a particular time), with the key consideration that they do not interfere with the licensed devices.

Leonard Mabele, the IoT and Wireless Networks manager at @iLabAfrica— Strathmore University, says as a country, we need to explore more innovative ways such as spectrum innovations to enable more affordable internet access to the underserved groups. He says this is because Kenya’s internet access and use rates have tremendously grown in the past decade.

This is attributed to the development of favourable policies, investment by both local and foreign stakeholders, and a vibrant population keen to embrace digital technologies. These levels of growth are anticipated to rise as the demand for wireless communications, which seems to be accelerating, resonating with the rest of the world.

“CA has identified an existing gap of allocated RF bands, which are often partly occupied or largely unoccupied. This is the genesis of establishing a roadmap for DSA implementations in Kenya. Primarily, the identified gap exists due to the traditional command-and-control model of spectrum allocation worldwide, which makes it largely a regulatory issue before the opportunity is unlocked,” says Leonard.

Spectrum access rights

He adds that while SS can be looked at in multiple ways, such as the access to the same radio spectrum by multiple subscribers of a specific mobile operator, the SS paradigm the report is referring to is based on the spectrum access rights point of view. 

CA envisioned “a digitally transformed nation” having a nationwide broadband network that can provide, at minimum, five Mbps to individuals, homes, and businesses with projections of 300 Mbps and 50 Mbps for urban and rural households, respectively, by 2022. However, as of 2022, some reports showed the country’s internet penetration barely past the 50 per cent mark. The mobile penetration is said to be at 52 per cent with mobile infrastructure coverage of 54.9 per cent.

On the other hand, the fixed networks seem to be beyond reach for most Kenyans with the total number of fixed broadband subscriptions as of early 2021 standing at 643,748 from all the Network Facilities Providers (NFPs).

Digital ecosystem growth

Dynamic Spectrum Alliance president Martha Suarez says Kenya can be described to be in its early stages of spectrum sharing developments and quite advanced compared to its neighbouring countries. But if good spectrum decisions are in place, she says, the country will see an impact on digital connectivity and the growth of the digital ecosystem.

“The landscape of adopting spectrum sharing in the country still faces quite some hurdles and is yet to “really” take off. Some of them range from complete lack of awareness of the concept, the technology architecture(s), the opportunity that exists, regulatory developments and even the terminology,” says Suarez.

The migration of analog TV to digital TV broadcasting opened up unused TV frequencies (or TV White Spaces) that could be leveraged to provide internet services. 

“Successful adoption of spectrum sharing in Kenya primarily depends on the regulatory pillar. Presently, Kenya can boast as commercially ready for deploying TV white spaces (TVWS) in the UHF band 470-694 MHz due to the official release of the regulations. However, the pace at which the regulations were developed raises some concerns about future enactment of spectrum-sharing regulations in other bands,” adds Mabele.

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