Network Infrastructure sharing is usually spurred on by commercial value rather than mandated by regulators and takes on many forms; varying from passive sharing of masts and cell sites to sharing Radio Access Networks (RANs) and other active elements. The most common are site and mast sharing and network roaming due to their technical and commercial simplicity. In order to develop and maintain effective ICT policies, regulations, legislation; it is imperative that the technology below and its development throughout the years, is taken into consideration. Not only that, it is important that industry players become more open and accepting of an infrastructure sharing model.
1G, which refers to the first generation of wireless telephone technology, was underpinned by infrastructure such as party lines, open copper over-the-air lines, telegraph and telephony lines. These were times when post telegraph and telephone (PTT) had voice calls as the dominant service provided to consumers. The PTT service required provision via microwave links, earth stations, telephone exchange (manual, automatic and digital) and included no Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) mobile communications at all. This is the era where satellite providers were owned by PTTs; the era before privatisation of Intelsat, Inmarsat and Eutelsat.
This technology was then replaced by 2G networks whose infrastructure was spectrum based and included mobile communications networks, Wi-Fi and Local Multipoint Distribution System (LMDS). This is the period of privatised PTTs where competition was heating up. Infrastructure competition was common in other markets (about two to four mobile operators and more than one fixed operator per market) and mobile operators built most of their own infrastructure.
3G was then developed as a replacement for 2G technology and infrastructure included high speed optic fibre networks combined with spectrum based technologies such as Long Term Evolution (LTE), 802.11AC and AD. This is the infrastructure that was built as a hybrid between wireless and optic fibre which was seen as the infrastructure that will support the Internet of things and drive big data. This is the beginning or phase one of Fibre to the home or anything (FTTx) and the era of infrastructure sharing.
Technologies in this third generation infrastructure include:
- Software Defined Networks (SDN)
- Content Delivery Networks (CDN)
- Software Defined Radio (SDR)
- Cloud enabled Networking (CEN)
- Network as a service (NaaS)
These technologies allow for scalability of networks and allows for many tenants to share a network where software can manage the differentiation between each of the networks.
Again, It is important that policies, regulations and legislation take into account the technical developments mentioned above. Therefore, we cannot regulate as if the industry is still operating on 1st generation or even 2nd generation infrastructure; it needs to be written in such a way as to encourage the latest network infrastructure.
Why should the industry implement the infrastructure sharing model?
There are some factors worth considering that are characteristic of the African environment which will influence the effective functioning of this industry, the policy and regulation that will affect it.
The economic issues that face operators include:
- The costs of investing in the infrastructure;
- Whether each player in the industry should make their own investments into the infrastructure;
- Whether the high costs justify the investment?
The cost of ownership is high and capital is a scarce commodity. This global financial markets will influence these decisions driven by a limited number of resources, global debt and a lag in GDP growth.
There are also environmental issues worth considering such as the long linear distance this infrastructure requires in relation to Africa’s terrain. The scarcity of power/energy also presents some challenges to this industry as the project will require 2,7km of optic fiber linear infrastructure, a base station of 2,7 kilowatts from any of the following sources: grid; solar; wind; battery and fossil fuel generators.
Therefore, one can not overlook the benefits of infrastructure sharing which include:
- Reduced operating costs
- Ability to provide additional capacity in congested areas
- Expanded coverage into previously un-served geographic areas
- Can be used in congested urban centers where new site acquisition may prove difficult
Other issues include the price of polysilicon which is still high at $25/kg making it an expensive development cycle. One needs to also consider the implications of the future Internet of Things, sensors network, big data, analytics, world population and Internet traffic.
All the above are issues that will influence policy, regulation, design and in turn the market structure of this industry. We need to strive to establish a market characterised by an enabling rather than regulated industry and it all starts with unity amongst industry players when it comes to accepting and adopting the infrastructure sharing model.