Open Spectrum for Development in the Context of the Digital Migration Association for Progressive Communications

29 September 2011 - A Workshop on Other in Nairobi, Kenya


While the communication technologies that use the radio spectrum continue to develop at a brisk pace, our general approach to regulating the spectrum has not changed much since the 1930s when the spectrum was regulated to a very high degree in order to assure that interference between signals would not occur. For this reason, frequencies are assigned for specific uses and overseen quite closely by national regulators as well as an international system of governance. However, as technology rapidly changes, approaches to managing the spectrum should change as well.

Around the world, countries are migrating their broadcast systems –in particular, television- from analogue transmitters and receivers to digital ones. Digital broadcasting utilises the spectrum more efficiently, generally allowing for more channels in the space where one analogue channel could exist. This provides opportunity for other uses of the freed spectrum.
This digital migration creates the opportunity for improving how spectrum can be used and regulated. In particular, for expanding internet access. For this opportunity to realise, new means should be built into all spectrum allocation regimes. Open spectrum is one approach to spectrum management that would allow various users to utilise parts of the spectrum that are available. Sharing the spectrum in such a way would create a “spectrum commons” and would require a simple set of rules for communicating with one another and making decisions. But even if some frequencies are set aside as commons, more transparent and clear ways to regulate the spectrum being used by all stakeholders -including broadcasters, mobile companies and the military- need to be set.

This workshop will be aimed at identifying current practices that are contributing to build the spectrum commons, as well as debating different perspectives on policy and regulatory issues involved in spectrum management and its impacts on development.

In this workshop we will explore alternative regulatory frameworks in different contexts and regions, considering how technological developments can shape the future of spectrum-based communication. Considering, in particular, the opportunities brought by the transition to digital broadcasting systems.



A brief substantive summary and the main events that were raised:

Participants in this workshop explored alternative spectrum regulatory frameworks, considering how technological developments can shape the future of spectrum-based communications in order to improve access to the internet. They also debated different perspectives on policy and regulatory issues involved in spectrum management and its impacts on development; analysed the context of spectrum regulation in African and Latin American countries and how it is changing in light of the digital migration and, finally, explored what opportunities are there for multistakeholder collaboration around spectrum use and regulation.

Main themes raised

One general issue raised by the workshop participants was the importance of having spectrum policies and regulations that are a result of multistakeholder dialogues - involving industry, government and the civil society. This discussion needs to factor in the needs of these different actors in order to arrive to the best possible decisions for all, as the consequences of bad decisions in this area are not only profound but also difficult to correct.

Another important issue mentioned was that spectrum-based technologies are getting not only cheaper but more and more efficient and, therefore, what is possible to do with the same bandwidth steadily increases. Spectrum management has a crucial impact on affordability of access on the development of entrepreneurship and in innovation. Therefore, according to the workshop panellists, we need to think of different paradigms for using spectrum that give adequate responses to those needs. These paradigms should be less in the kind of monolithic top‑down centrally controlled approach to rolling out spectrum and a more entrepreneurial, locally-driven approach.

When considering the situation in Southern countries – in particular in Southern Africa and in Latin America – the panellists identified important windows of opportunity provided by regulatory changes and new policy debates that are taking place in the context of the migration to digital broadcasting systems. This includes the possibility of releasing “digital dividend” spectrum for broadband communications once the transition to digital systems is completed, but also the present opportunity to contemplate, in the new regulations, the possibility of using more effectively currently available spectrum. In particular, the television white spaces –bands guarded to avoid interference beween TV signals, which responds to technical limitations of old TV broadcasting and reception systems. New dynamic spectrum sensing technology, that allows to make use of those spectrum frequencies was considered by the panellists as “ripe for implementation”. This technology could roll out affordable both broadband connectivity and local area networking to areas of the globe that otherwise could not afford it and to individuals and organisations that have needs or uses that are not met by the dominant business models.

As mentioned by one of the panellists, current spectrum allocations are based on business models and on perceived public benefits -some of which are real and some of which are actually intangible and unknown. Real needs in relation to spectrum use have to be clarified and spectrum regulation has to contemplate them adequately. The workshop panellists agreed in that there is a real need to bring the spectrum regulation into the digital age, as there are still “analogue regulations” that are being applied in a digital world, that do not map onto the possibilities of today's technology.

Conclusions and further comments:
The workshop discussion can be synthesised in the following recommendations:

• Regulators and other stakeholders should prepare for digital migration and actively ensure that the digital dividend is utilised for increasing access and reducing prices.

• There is no need to wait for digital migration to make use of television white space spectrum. TV spectrum licensing for secondary use should be implemented, so that technologies like TV white spaces equipment can start taking advantage of unused TV spectrum through dynamic spectrum sensing and use of unused TV channels immediately.

• Spectrum is a critical resource to any country and it should be managed in the national strategic interest and not just in the interests of the incumbent operators. This naturally implies a multistakeholder discussion about how best to benefit everyone.

A note about this workshop is available on APC’s website:

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