Governments need to take urgent action now to support mobile broadband growth. So says ITU Secretary-General Dr Hamadoun Touré, who added that accelerated fibre roll-out and greater spectrum availability will be imperative if network bottlenecks are to be avoided.
Smartphone users already consume on average five times more data capacity than users of ordinary mobile phones. With the number of smartphones set to rise from today’s global estimate of 500 million handsets in use, to almost two billion by 2015, operators are already having to employ multi-pronged strategies to keep up with demand – and not all are succeeding.
“Mobile operators have been investing billions to upgrade and improve the capacity and performance of their networks, but in some high-usage cities, such as San Francisco, New York and London, we are still seeing users frustrated by chronic problems of network unavailability.
“Robust National Broadband Plans that promote extra spectrum and the faster roll-out of the fibre networks which are essential to mobile backhaul are vital to support the growing number of data-intensive applications,” says Dr Touré. ITU analysis shows 98 countries have National Broadband Plans in place, with this number set to increase over the next year.
Mobile broadband is increasingly the technology of choice for hundreds of millions in the developing world, where fixed line infrastructure is often sparse and expensive to deploy. ITU estimates that the number of mobile broadband subscriptions will reach one billion in the first quarter of 2011. With ninety per cent of the world now covered by a mobile signal, it is clear that mobile is a key tool to bridging the digital divide. By 2010, 73 per cent of total mobile cellular subscriptions were from the developing world.
In 2010, Dr Touré led the creation of the Broadband Commission for Digital Development to highlight the need for governments worldwide to promote broadband as a key development tool and push broadband network roll-out more proactively.
The Commission is co-chaired by President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Carlos Slim Helú, Honorary Lifetime Chairman of Grupo Carso. Dr Touré and Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, are Vice-Chairs. It comprises some of the leading lights of the mobile industry, including Alcatel Lucent’s Ben Verwaayen, Bharti Airtel’s Sunil Bharti Mittal, China Mobile’s Wang Jianzhou, Ericsson’s Hans Vestberg, Denis O’Brien of Digicel, Paul Jacobs of Qualcomm and César Alierta of Telefonica, alongside other prominent business figures, including Sir Richard Branson, John Chambers of Cisco and Paul Otellini of Intel. Top policy-makers and regulators on the Commission include the European Commission’s Neelie Kroes and the FCC’s Julius Genachowski.
The Commission’s report, delivered to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York last September, recommended that world leaders focus on building a ‘virtuous broadband development dynamic’, and urged governments not to limit market entry, not to tax broadband and related services too heavily, and to ensure ample availability of spectrum to support mobile broadband growth.
In anticipation of ITU’s next World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) in January 2012, operators in Europe and the US have already begun campaigning for increased spectrum for mobile communications, and for harmonized spectrum allocations in contiguous blocks for latest-generation technologies.
Operators from other regions seem certain to follow suit, as new high-revenue-generating mobile broadband services like mobile TV take off worldwide.
Some views are that access to unused broadcast spectrum – so-called ‘white spaces’ – might also help alleviate the spectrum squeeze. The ‘digital dividend’ of spectrum freed up by the progressive global move to digital radio and television seems certain to be high on the agenda of national delegations when they convene in Geneva for the four-week-long WRC-12.
The conference, held every three to four years, is the global body which negotiates and manages the binding international treaty governing spectrum allocation. Coming at a critical juncture in the future growth of the sector, the 2012 event is expected to welcome over 2,500 senior delegates from around the world.
For the moment, alleviating the capacity crunch is leading operators to employ a range of strategies – from investment in WiFi networks and encouraging users to install their own femtocell devices, to tiered pricing to penalize heavy data users, and regulatory approaches that would ask incumbents to open access to their fibre networks to competitors to provide critical backhaul for mobile data traffic.
In addition, says ITU, more in-ground fibre is needed to move the growing volume of mobile data traffic from operators’ increasingly rapid radio access networks to their faster core networks, to optimize speed and call processing. At present, most backhaul is performed on standard telecommunications twisted copper pair loops, which offer top speeds of around 34Mbit/s. Carrier-grade fibre backbones are around 300 times faster, as well as being optimized for packet-based data traffic, rather than circuit-switched voice.