Spectrum Issues for Multimedia Services

- P K Garg

 

General: The economies in future are expected to be heavily dependent on ‘Knowledge’. For any knowledge based society, multimedia/ broadband based services and applications would play a crucial role. Also, the economic power of a country is equally, if not more, important as its military power. In most of the countries, especially the emerging economies, the mobile/ wireless systems would play a crucial role in the fast growth of telephony as well as broadband services. In a vast country like India with its large population, there would be space for various technologies – terrestrial as well as satellite based – for serving the nation. Continued, substantial growth of modern mobile telecom services is, therefore, essential for achieving the ‘Knowledge Society’ in the country.

 

The Internet services hold a great significance for information and knowledge society, which is the call of the day for modernizing and empowering any nation. The Internet Protocol (IP) based voice services have also greatly improved in quality and are fully accepted by the public. Further, the IP based services are more economical for operators as well as customers/ subscribers. The modern broadband services permit the triple play – voice, data and entertainment, all together. For fast response, high speed Internet is essential, requiring broadband networks.

 

Indian telecom network, from the subscriber numbers, is the second largest network globally. India is now recognized as the most promising market for various telecom services, including broadband/ multimedia applications.

 

The growth as well as affordability of telecom services has brought about immense socio-economic benefits to the nation. The telecom services help in reducing travel requirements, thus helping the environment and eco system as well, besides saving billions of dollars for the country through lesser increase in demand for petroleum products. It has also helped create awareness in the masses about different issues – be it health, education, improved agriculture, environment issues or e-governance, etc.

 

Growth potential for multimedia/ broadband services:

 

The Government of India has placed a large stress on the broadband services for e-governance, e-health, distant learning, entertainment etc. in the country. The Broadband Policy announced in 2004, envisaged fast expansion of various broadband services – both wireline and wireless. In fact, in the sub-urban and rural areas, wireless is the only practical alternative for fast provision of broadband services. With reduction in the cost of computers – both desk tops and lap tops, the growth of multimedia/ broadband services should witness an exponential growth trajectory.

 

With fast developments in various multimedia/ broadband technologies & equipment as well as applications/ emerging requirements and the large latent demand in sub-urban and rural areas, multimedia/ broadband services have tremendous potential. With the stress being laid by the Government on their growth in the country, these services should also demonstrate a growth similar to mobile telephony. Most of the services in rural areas would be wireless based for next 5 years or so. In urban areas, the wireless services would be needed to meet the demand for mobile multimedia.

 

Internet and broadband technologies:

 

Presently, HSPA and WiMAX are the prominent technologies for wireless broadband. The LTE, the successor of HSPA, is also following the OFDMA modulation, similar to WiMAX. Also, the IP based networks hold promise for the future. The satellite based multimedia services also follow, basically, the similar approach.

The Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs) are being developed to cater to triple play. With variety of MIDs available in the market (and more devices becoming available in near future) and likely reduction in their prices through economies of scale, the broadband services should see an exponential growth in the e-governance, education & health sectors, besides IT and ITES sectors.

 

Indian scenario:

 

For covering India, an extensive network is essential, in order to provide seamless and economical services to the subscribers. With the interest of all global equipment manufacturers in India and economies of scale; attractive prices and financing alternatives are offered by various vendors. Also, terrestrial and satellite based networks would need to complement each other to cover the country.

 

Although India has low tariffs and ARPU (Average Revenue Per User), yet very large number of subscribers and fairly large usage at reasonable/ economical tariffs, have made the Indian telecom networks not only economically viable but also profitable. Large amount of qualified technical, financial and managerial manpower is available in the country. Hence, it is possible to install & commission country wide network in about a year’s time.

 

RF spectrum – an essential raw material for mobile multimedia services:

The RF spectrum is the essential raw material for the growth of any mobile telecom service and adequate amount of spectrum at reasonable price is crucial for affordable multimedia services. The facilitating role of the government through its various policies, in line with NTP-99, along with reasonable levies and taxes, should kindly continue. In addition, the technological neutral approach of the government for various telecom services should continue for multimedia services as well.

General characteristics of RF spectrum:

 

The Radio Frequency (RF) spectrum is a limited natural resource. The set of radio frequencies is called the ‘RF spectrum’. Theoretically the RF spectrum extends from 9 KHz to 3000 GHz. However, the limitation of the RF spectrum comes from few critical factors. First of all, various radio frequencies have different propagation characteristics and hence their suitability for different type of requirements. This is because the radio frequencies follow the laws of physics. Lower the frequency, longer is the distance it can cover. On the other hand, higher the frequency, shorter is the distance over which it can propagate. For example the short wave (HF – high frequency) band can propagate across the continents, whereas the microwave frequencies (SHF – Super High Frequency Band) can propagate upto few kilometres only. Still higher frequencies can cover few hundred metres only.

 

The second limitation arises from the fact that radio frequency propagation does not obey political boundaries of different countries. A short wave (HF) system can cover many countries in normal course. Even the microwave transmissions close to national boundaries would propagate across the border. Because of this international nature of propagation, the RF spectrum has to be shared among different countries and the Rules governing the use of RF spectrum are international in character. These Regulations are formulated by all countries under the aegis of the International Telecommunication Union, based in Geneva (Switzerland).

 

The next limitation of RF spectrum arises from the availability of appropriate and globally competitive equipment for various requirements. Different manufacturers produce equipment in the frequency bands most commonly used at global level. The commercial services/ networks have to go for techno-economic solutions. Hence, for any commercial usage, the equipment cost is an important consideration and the system should be available from multiple sources globally for availing the benefit of competitive prices.

 

Still another limitation is because of large number of different radio-communication services which have to use the RF spectrum for their operation. There are a total of more than 40 different radio-communication services.  

 

The RF spectrum has been in short supply all along, right since the evolution of wireless/ radio communications. With the development of wireless technologies, it has been possible to use higher frequency bands. To that extent, these new developments have opened up spectrum at the higher frequency bands for use. At the same time, the requirements of different wireless based services/ applications have also been growing at a much faster pace. The result of all this has been that the RF spectrum has always remained in short supply all along. This has necessitated its continued optimal use by all wireless users through all practical means.

 

This resource cannot be stored for future use. If it is not used for a particular time, the utility/ opportunity value for that particular time is lost. Further this resource is susceptible to interference/ electro-magnetic pollution, which can nullify its utility. Hence, the usage of this resource needs to be managed so that all the services and applications can use it without any harmful interference to each other.

 

The last decade has seen a tremendous growth of mobile telephony all over the globe. The trend of modern telecommunications is towards greater mobility with ever increasing data rates/ speeds, for achieving the goal of knowledge based society. By 2015, with the anticipated growth of broadband and very large number of devices being connected to the Internet, the public telecommunication traffic is expected to grow tremendously. Approximately 40% of this total data is expected to flow through mobile/ wireless services. Hence, there would be more demand on RF spectrum for public services.

 

These public mobile services and their growth have brought about tremendous socio-economic benefits for the global humanity in general and for developing countries in particular. The tele-densities in most of the developing economies were extremely poor till the public mobile telephony came on the scene. With the growth of mobile services, the tele-densities in most of the developing countries have improved tremendously, accompanied by the resultant socio-economic benefits. Most of the countries are giving a special impetus for achieving reasonable growth of multimedia/ broadband services, an essential infrastructure for achieving ‘Knowledge Society’

With the anticipated exponential increase in demand on the limited and scarce natural resource of RF spectrum, it is inevitable that all categories of wireless users should use this resource most efficiently.

 

The optimum efficiency in spectrum usage can be achieved through various methods – like national policy directives, economic measures like appropriate spectrum pricing, etc. With the trend towards market mechanism for spectrum, the economic methods of appropriate spectrum pricing can drive better spectrum efficiencies across the spectrum, by different services and applications. At the same time the similar spectrum used by other services also needs to be priced at comparable levels, so as to provide an incentive for the users of those services and applications to move to spectrum efficient systems or to higher frequency bands, where possible. The differential pricing for different parts of the spectrum – relatively lower prices for higher bands – can also provide an incentive in this direction. The spectrum pricing can follow a dynamic approach with periodical review after every 5 years or so.

 

Every country has its own specific situation and no single solution can be applicable for all the countries. However, by adapting some of these broad parameters to country specific situation, reasonably optimum & efficient use of this resource can be achieved.

In conclusion, through adoption of various policy measures and provision of incentives as well as through a co-operative approach of all the large wireless users in a country, it should be possible to use this precious natural resource in the most optimum manner, so as to derive the maximum benefit for the public at large.

 

 

P K Garg, Member, Radio Regulations Board, ITU; &Former Wireless Adviser to the Government of India

 

Note: These are the personal views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of his organisations.