What is so special about the 700 MHz band?
Many countries across the Caribbean are keen to improve the wireless broadband service available and either have offered, or are in the process of offering, the 700 MHz band for use. This post discusses the 700 MHz band, the services being considered, and some other considerations.
In any of our posts where we discuss the penetration of mobile/cellular services across the Caribbean, it is readily acknowledged that there is widespread proliferation. In our most recent Snapshot: 2012 update on the state of telecoms in the Caribbean, the availability of mobile/cellular service ranged from around 65 subscriptions per 100 of the population in Belize, to approximately 166 subscriptions per 100 of the population in Antigua and Barbuda.
Having made significant inroads in improving access to and the availability of voice services via the mobile/cellular telephone, many Caribbean countries are now keen to broaden the emphasis to the delivery of broadband services. To varying degrees, mobile broadband services currently exist across the region. However, they tend to be limited in geographic coverage; offer few service plans; and are relatively expensive.
Generally, currently used technologies in the region tend not to have the needed capacity to support a comprehensive rollout of quality mobile broadband, specifically high speed broadband. Hence many countries worldwide are allocating new frequency bands from their national radio frequency spectrum for those services. One of the preferred bands is the 700 MHz band, which countries across the region – such as Antigua and Barbuda, the five ECTEL Member States, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago – have allocated for Broadband Wireless Access.
The 700 MHz spectrum
The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Frequency Allocation Tables, which specifies the approved services that can be used by particular radio frequency bands worldwide, allocated the 700 MHz band primarily for broadcasting, but it could also be used for fixed wireless and mobile services. Historically, this band was used for analogue television (TV) broadcasting on UHF (Ultra High Frequency) channels 52 to 69. The switchover to digital TV means that frequencies initially assigned for analogue broadcasting are being freed up for reuse for other services.
The 700 MHz band is adjacent to the remaining analogue TV channels, and as a result, it possesses excellent propagation characteristics, such as being able to penetrate buildings and walls easily, and covering relatively large geographic areas without unacceptable deterioration of the signal. It therefore means that the 700 MHz band can facilitate more economical deployment of wireless networks, since fewer base stations would typically be required to serve a large area, when compared with that required for the provision of mobile/cellular service, which tend to use much higher frequencies (e.g. the 900 MHz and 1800 MHz bands).
What is Broadband Wireless Access?
As the term suggests, Broadband Wireless Access (BWA) speaks to wireless technologies that support data access at broadband speeds, i.e. speeds greater than 2 Mbps (Source: ETSI). Across the Caribbean, the major mobile/cellular operators initially offered Internet connectivity via EGDE, a 2.75G standard, but over the last two years, many have been upgrading their networks to the HSPA+ standard, which is loosely considered a 4G technology. Table 1 compares the most commonly deployed wireless Internet/broadband technologies, and our earlier post, EDGE, WiMAX, 3G or 4G – what’s the difference?, provides a comprehensive discussion of the various standards.
Caribbean countries that are making the 700 MHz band available for use, are specifying that it to be used for BWA. Many have even expressed a preference that “4G LTE” technology be deployed.
Long Term Evolution (LTE) is again a standard that falls under the 4G umbrella, but is a precursor to the full 4G standard – no true 4G. It can support download speeds of up to 100 Mbps, and upload speeds of up to 50 Mbps. However, realisation of such speeds by users will be dependent on a number of factors, many of which were discussed in Evolving Over the Long Term: Considerations towards implementing LTE. One the main determinants of the speeds users will actually experience is the capacity of the backbone or backhaul infrastructure that will be installed to support the provision of “4G LTE”. This matter is often overlooked, but is a key reason for the congestion that many of us who use wireless Internet regularly experience.
Some things to consider
Although many countries across the Caribbean have been announcing the imminent roll out of “4G LTE”, some of them are still developing a framework to formally assign the frequencies to the telcos. The process to do so might not be unduly complicated, but it is still must be finalised and implemented, all of which will take time.
It is also important to appreciate that the deployment of new networks also takes time, and will include key stages such as network planning, procurement, installation, commissioning and testing. Most telcos tend to prefer to launch new services in a country’s major population centres, to secure the greatest take-up in the first instance, and to begin recovering their investment. Hence comprehensive coverage across areas where there might be no wireless broadband or Internet service may only begin to happen in the medium to long term from the launch date.
Finally, in offering the 700 MHZ band for BWA services, many countries are keen to realise competition in that market, in the hope of securing the benefits of lower prices, a wider choice of services, along with increased access and availability – similar to the mobile/cellular market. However, to varying degrees, regulatory frameworks in the region, have focussed almost exclusively on regulating voice services. The same acumen is still to be developed for data services, in order to ensure that there is equitable and fair delivery of those services, and not leave it solely in the hand of competitive forces.