Can TV white spaces shift Zim telecoms balance of power?

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THERE is never a dull moment in the telecommunications technology space.

Human Capital Telescope with Brett Chulu

Google is seriously pursuing the idea of offering broadband via unused TV frequencies.

These unused frequencies in the TV spectra are called TV white spaces.

These unused TV frequencies could soon be used to offer internet services in African countries such as Kenya and South Africa.

Early this year, Google, the internet search Czar, in conjunction with South African agencies completed TV white spaces broadband trials in 10 Cape Town schools.

The trials demonstrated that it was possible to offer broadband services by exploiting unused frequencies in the TV bands with no interference to the TV signals of licensed operators.

From a strategic planning viewpoint, it suffices for business executives in Zimbabwe to know that TV frequencies travel relatively slowly but have a wider geographical reach than current broadband services that are based on fibre and satellite links.

With broadband based on TV white spaces, very remote areas can have access to internet services without having to resort to pricey last-mile solutions such as satellite dishes and fibre.

There is a business catch here – TV white spaces present the opportunity to widen internet access to our unreached rural masses at a fraction of current broadband costs. To those who follow this column, TV white spaces broadband is an example of a potentially disruptive innovation – it holds the promise of enabling masses that are currently denied internet services because broadband is overly expensive and in many cases, just not available.

As with any disruptive innovation, the initial levels of performance are expected to be unattractive to demanding customers. The Cape Town white spaces broadband trials chalked up internet speeds of up to 4Mb per second.

Of course, we wouldn’t expect those kinds of broadband speeds when the TV white spaces broadband service is scaled up. This just underlines the fact that the performance levels of white space broadband will improve with time.

A parallel TV transmission technology called Digital Terrestrial TV or simply Digital TV (DTV) is gaining traction in the Sadc region. DTV is an ultra-efficient user of TV spectra.

South Africa’s Department of Communications, one of the key agencies spearheading the migration from analogue to digital television have revealed that DTV technology (DVB-T2 protocol) is able to pack 15 channels into a spectrum currently allocated to one analogue TV channel.

What that means is that DTV is able to free up TV frequencies, creating more white spaces that can be released for broadband.

Zimbabwe, sooner or later will migrate to DTV. That should not be too difficult to see — Sadc countries signed a memorandum to introduce DTV. Considering that Zimbabwe has only two TV channels, all state-owned, it means even without DTV we possibly have lots of TV white spaces available for reassignment to broadband usage. Introduction of DTV in Zimbabwe will simply create more white spaces.

Possible telecoms power shifts
Depending on how future governments will configure communications regulatory and legislative architectures, any future reallocation of TV white spaces to telecoms usage could usher seismic shifts in the telecoms balance of power.

Three possible scenarios could unfold.We will call scenario 1 state-plays-alone. In the state-plays-alone scenario, government may set up a totally new parastatal to play in the TV white spaces broadband arena.

An argument likely to be raised in favour of state monopoly in the TV white spaces broadband services will be the need to protect a highly sensitive TV spectrum resource.

If the government takes this route, it will face serious legal challenges emanating from precedents in which state monopoly in telecoms was dismantled following the landmark ruling in favour of Econet in the late 1990s.

Thus the state-plays-alone scenario is highly unlikely. If this scenario were to play out, a state-owned enterprise would simply KO incumbents, becoming the new king of broadband.

The second scenario is what we will term anyone-can-play. Due to the possibility that TV white spaces broadband can be offered to the consumer at a fraction of current broadband services costs, the barriers to entry into the broadband business will be significantly lowered.

As a result, we would expect numerous players without deep pockets trying their luck at broadband.

Price wars are likely to become the order of the day and as such the broadband business is likely to be less lucrative than it is now. All sorts of uncomfortable things will begin to dog telecoms incumbents as low-cost broadband coupled with the proliferation of low-cost smartphones will accelerate the adoption of internet-based communications such as Voice- over internet protocol (VoIP).

The trend world over is that voice revenue for mobile network operators is either stagnating or declining as mobile penetration rates climb above 100%.

Zimbabwe’s mobile penetration, currently sitting at 97%, virtually signals the end of voice as a source of growth for mobile network operators.

In Zimbabwe, the next frontier of telecoms revenue growth is data in which widening access to broadband is a key strategic enabler. Due to the multimillion dollar investments into broadband provision infrastructure by Zimbabwe’s mobile network operators and internet service providers, we do not expect broadband end-user prices to go south any time soon.

Thus the timing of any future TV white spaces reallocation to broadband usage is critical. If a future government would decide to fast-track the reassignment of unused TV spectra, a lot of resistance is likely to be faced from incumbent internet service providers, more so, the mobile network operators as they would most probably cite the need for time to recoup their massive infrastructural investments.

Reflect on it
TV white spaces as a source of broadband, is a technological development in its infancy. Shrewd strategists see things far off and position their business chess pieces before others open their eyes.

Chulu is a strategic HR consultant who is pioneering innovative strategic HR practices in both listed and unlisted companies. — brettchulu@consultant.com.

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