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Future of mobile broadband hangs in the balance

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The future of broadband in South Africa stands at a crossroads, with 3G the current market leader and WiMax expected to become a new force to be reckoned with as early as next year – but the wrong decision on spectrum allocation could scupper 3G's ability to function in the local market going forward. 

With ICASA (Independent Communications Authority of SA) due to finalise spectrum allocations before the end of the year, Ericsson has come out strongly in support of a band plan prescribed by CEPT in Europe and recommended by CITEL in the Americas that would ensure the spectrum availability that would allow 3G to develop beyond the current HSPA (High Speed Packet Access) to LTE (Long-Term Evolution).
"We can all be put in peril by regulations – and by ICASA, which will be finalising a fundamental decision within the next month or two," says Nicholas Williams, regulatory affairs director at Ericsson.
At stake is spectrum allocation in the 2,5GHz to 2,69GHz frequency band. WiMax proponents want the whole band to be allocated for mobile WiMax (IEEE 802.16e) implementations, while the 3G lobby argues that it doesn't need the whole band.
In order for 3G and HSPA to continue to evolve through LTE in 2009, however, it will be necessary to have two 70Mhz channels available for FDD throughput.
To meet these needs, CEPT – the body responsible for band allocation in Europe – has prescribed a band plan that would allocate 2,5GHz to 2,57GHz for FDD uplinks and 2,62GHz to 2,69GHz for FDD downlinks. This plan would allow for 50MHz of spectrum which could be used for TDD up- or downlinks and where WiMax would be able to operate.
This band plan has also been recommended by CITEL, which looks after allocation in the Americas.
"ICASA cannot be technology neutral and give all the spectrum to either TDD or FDD," says Williams. "If we're going to migrate to LTE at all, we're going to need at least 70MHz paired."
Ericsson's arguments are based on the fact that 3G is alive and well and already delivering applications and benefits around the world – especially in Europe, Asia-Pacific and Africa – while mobile WiMax is still in its pilot stages.
"As a business, we see this as one of the biggest risks facing business across the globe: if regulators mess up and we've got nowhere to put LTE."
Ericsson supports its arguments with examples of how GSM telephony and subsequently 3G data access has grown worldwide, with particular emphasis on the uplifting and transformational role it has played in Africa.
"In Africa, people's first experience of telephony has often been the mobile phone. In South Africa, about 41-million people are GSM subscribers," says Pieter van der Westhuizen from Ericsson's local office.
"In modern society, Internet access is becoming a basic requirement for people to participate in the global economy and broadband is extremely important for this."
The number of wireless broadband connections is expected to surpass fixed broadband connections around the world in 2009 and there will be about 1,8-billion wireless broadband subscribers by 2012.
Because 3G and HSPA are already established technologies, with a future roadmap in the form of LTE, Van der Westhuizen believes it will continue to offer benefits to subscribers around the world and particularly in Africa.
"We don't see Mobile WiMax as a threat, but if it occupies the spectrum we need, there is a problem," he says.
"The success of GSM and 3G has been because of economies of scale. If South Africa doesn't follow global trends, devices won't be able to work here."