Monday, October 29, 2007

Webcast from Kigali

I'll be curious to watch some of the sessions once the opening ceremony in Kigali is out of the way. It starts at 07 hrs UTC, 8 am in the Netherlands.

The GSM Association has already announced that the mobile industry plans to invest more than $50 billion in sub-Saharan Africa over the next five years to provide more than 90% of the population with mobile coverage. The investment will be used to extend the reach of GSM mobile networks, enhanced with GPRS, EDGE and HSPA technologies, to provide a rich suite of mobile multimedia services, including Internet access.

Since sub-Saharan governments began liberalising their telecommunication sectors at the turn of the millennium, the GSMA estimates that the mobile industry has invested $35 billion, providing more than 500 million people (67% of the population) in sub-Saharan Africa with mobile coverage.

MTN, Orange, Vodacom and Zain subsidiary Celtel are among the mobile operators planning to invest heavily in the expansion and enhancement of their networks. “We have the passion and dedication to provide Africa with a world class infrastructure,” said MTN Group President and CEO Phuthuma Nhleko. “We are proud to be a leading investor in Africa, bringing world-class services to our customers on the continent through our Celtel subsidiary,” added Dr. Saad Al Barrak, CEO of the Zain Group, while Alan Knott-Craig, CEO of Vodacom Group, said: “We are proud of our investment in Africa, and we will continue to focus on our customers and the development of products and services that benefit them.”

There are more than 150 million mobile subscribers in sub-Saharan Africa today. However, a further 350 million people have mobile coverage and are not yet directly connected. As well as extending coverage, the mobile industry is focused on using its economies of scale to connect these people. As the number of users grows, so too will economic prosperity. The GSMA estimates that an increase of 10 percentage points in mobile penetration can increase the annual growth rate of GDP by up to 1.2 percentage points.

In order to create the conditions that will maximise the benefit of this new investment, the GSMA calls on governments across sub-Saharan Africa to become enablers of business, and not gatekeepers that control and hamper it. In particular, African governments need to ensure that sufficient spectrum is available to enable the hundreds of millions of Africans, who live beyond the reach of today’s fixed networks, to gain access to cost-effective broadband services.

The GSMA believes the World Radiocommunication Conference, currently meeting in Geneva, needs to reserve the 750MHz to 862MHz spectrum band for mobile broadband services in Europe, Middle East and Africa. In this spectrum band, radio waves can travel significant distances and provide better in-building signals, helping operators to achieve more extensive and cost-effective mobile broadband coverage, particularly in rural areas. These bands aren't empty, they are being used for TV.

That view naturally puts them directly in conflict with the broadcast community. "In many European countries, digital terrestrial TV in these bands has already become a major success based on the availability of free-to-air TV services" says Lieven Vermaele, EBU Technical Director. "However, this success story could be jeopardised by the introduction of mobile phone services in broadcasting frequency bands."

Interference problems can easily arise when a number of services are deployed in the same frequency bands. Interference to analogue TV services typically appears as obtrusive patterns on the picture, while interference to digital TV services has much more radical effects, resulting in a complete blank screen. This would be unacceptable to consumers.

A recent study of the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT), which represents 48 EU countries, highlighted the problem of potential interference between mobile phones and TV services. CEPT suggests that further technical studies are necessary in this area and therefore allocations to the mobile service in relevant parts of the band 470 – 862 MHz should be considered only at the next World Radiocommunication Conference in 2011. The EBU strongly endorses CEPT's position. "We urge ITU to wait and study the options before making any decision on band sharing," says Lieven Vermaele, "in 2011 the picture will be much clearer."

But since digital terrestrial TV has only be trialed in a limited number of countries in Africa, the mobile guys may well have their way. But the GSMA says there are other challenges too.

“The world’s governments have an opportunity to narrow the digital divide between those who enjoy high-speed access to multimedia services today and the many people who can’t yet be economically served by broadband networks,” said Tom Phillips, Chief Government & Regulatory Affairs Officer of the GSMA. “It is important that the world’s governments set aside this spectrum in a harmonised way, enabling handset makers to achieve economies of scale, thereby reducing the cost of access devices for consumers.”

African Governments also need to address other barriers to the uptake of mobile communications, such as high consumer taxes. Mobile specific taxes are levied in Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia; if these were lowered or removed, government tax receipts would actually increase as more people will connect and use mobile services, boosting Value Added Tax receipts and stimulating wider economic activity. High license fees and other regulatory bottlenecks, such as international gateway monopolies, constrain the competitiveness of African business.
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