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Progressive Spectrum Distribution Policies Can Unlock the MENA Digital Opportunity

With the rapid growth of the demand for bandwidth to cater to the surge of new digital services, spectrum management has emerged as a critical component in ensuring consistent, affordable, and equitable connectivity. Spectrum allocation is a complex and sensitive topic with bearing across the industry, national security, international cooperation and digital transformation.

High-level discussions are therefore underway to find the optimal position on this valuable resource. One such event is the 6th MENA Spectrum Management Conference held in Tunisia last week, bringing together regulators, experts, telecom companies, and other ICT players to discuss the spectrum and its impact on the MENA region and beyond.

At the event, Tariq Al Awadhi, Chairman of Arab Spectrum Management Group (ASMG), emphasized the critical role that the spectrum plays in nurturing a conducive digital ecosystem, terming the radio spectrum as the most crucial element in the telecom sector. As such, reaching a consensus on spectrum management is key to addressing present and future connectivity needs.

The MENA event also prepared the Arab region for the World Radiocommunication Conference 2023 (WRC-23), which includes a critical agenda item to study 6GHz targeting IMT identification of 6425-7125 MHz. This study seeks to promote spectrum harmonization across borders to enable global roaming, interoperability and global markets for telecom equipment.

Such a development will help bridge divergent approaches to spectrum allocation between countries. China, for instance, has announced it will issue the entire 1200MHz in the 6GHz band for 5G. Europe has split the band, with the upper part 6425-7125 MHz studied for IMT under WRC-23 Agenda item 1.2, while the lower 500MHz tranche 5925-6425Mhz is made available for WiFi.

Most MENA countries have yet to decide on 6GHz, so WRC-23 will offer crucial guidance on balancing competing demands for a valuable spectrum. The WiFi industry, for one, has been increasingly vocal in laying claim to the 6GHz band. Through the WiFi Alliance, the industry says its next-generation wireless devices (WiFi 6E) require wider channels and additional capacity to deliver better network performance and support more WiFi users simultaneously, even in very dense and congested environments.

Experts broadly disagree with this assessment. WiFi already has access to over 600MHzof spectrum within 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands in many countries. Additional capacity requirements could be complemented by unlicensed high-band spectrum of up to 9GHz between 57-66GHz (60GHz). This mmWave band is adapted for RLAN applications and is available in most countries to deliver home Gigabit WiFi connectivity for high-bandwidth use cases. Fiber could also plug any performance gaps, enabling MENA countries with high fiber penetration to reach up to gigabit performance with WiFi 6.

Additionally, WiFi is yet to utilize the already allocated capacity in many countries fully. At the MENA Spectrum Management Conference, Olfa Jammeli, General Director, National Agency of Frequencies Tunisia, revealed that uptake of spectrum for WiFi only reached 50% since the North African country allocated the 5GHz band for WiFi 2017. She added that the existing spectrum needs to be optimally utilized before countries start allocating spectrum for WiFi 6.

With that in mind, the 6GHz band should be the primary band for the future of 5G to drive MENA’s digital economy. A GSMA Intelligence report reveals that mid-band 5G could contribute $16 billion in additional GDP in 2030 or 0.35% of the region’s GDP. The study identifies manufacturing, public administration, oil & gas and services as major beneficiaries of 5G mid-band across MENA.

The industrial sector can leverage expanding 5G coverage and related services to improve productivity, reduce costs and remain competitive on the global stage. On the other hand, smart city projects will herald an era of digital transformation with fully automated ecosystems powered by 5G smart city grids, e-government and autonomous vehicles. Meanwhile, the energy sector can leverage machine vision and XR to deliver predictive maintenance to optimize costs and boost personnel safety.

The GSMA, therefore, recommends an average of 2GHz per country as a necessary spectrum reserve for mobile services in the next decade. In the long-term, more capacity in mid-band is needed as 5G evolves, with 6GHz the most optimal frequency to accommodate future growth. Regional countries have in the past demonstrated leadership in forward-thinking ICT policies. The spectrum allocation process is no different. The resulting digital society will transform education, commerce, public services, education and more, and help regional countries realize their national objectives.

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