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Regional harmonization and mobile standardization

July 4, 2011  »  Broadband & MobileNo Comment

Trade liberalization and rapid technological progress, especially in mobile wireless technology, have made coordination and harmonization of telecommunications policy more attractive. Moreover, smaller, less wealthy nations are interested in regionalization as a means to pool regulatory resources.

mobile africa regional harmonizationTelecommunication services, including mobile phones, play a crucial role in facilitating trade between countries and are an essential component of regional economic integration. However a key obstacle to ensuring that mobile phones achieve the full potential stated above is the unavailability of roaming agreements between countries. Roaming support is essential for providing uninterrupted connectivity for users who are moving from one country to another. As it stands, most mobile operators in West Africa do not allow cross-border roaming on their networks, especially if the user has a pre-paid subscription. A few years ago, GSM standards were discussed and implemented by ECOWAS. At the time, the organization acknowledged the importance of mobile and the need for roaming agreements between nations:

Telecommunication services, including mobile phones, play a crucial role in facilitating trade between countries and are an essential component of regional economic integration. However a key obstacle to ensuring that mobile phones achieve the full potential stated above is the unavailability of roaming agreements between countries. Roaming support is essential for providing uninterrupted connectivity for users who are moving from one country to another. As it stands, most mobile operators in West Africa do not allow cross-border roaming on their networks, especially if the user has a pre-paid subscription.”

With roaming addressed, the next step would be to focus on the wireless spectrum. However, forums held by the West Africa Telecommunications Regulators Assembly (WATRA), had remained superficial, touching on the harmonization of national telecommunication codes and affordable roaming services, but falling short of deeper issues such as regional spectrum management and administrative structures, and strategies for efficient harmonization. In 2009, Harmonization of the ICT Policies in Sub-Sahara Africa (HIPSAA) sponsored a series of roundtables to support ICT harmonization in SSA. Topics covered include cyber-security, universal service and access, and statistical data collection. Again, no official regional spectrum policy was adopted.

Years later, the latest mobile technology is posing new challenges for regional harmonization. For example, a pre-paid 3G dongle user in Ghana cannot necessarily travel to Kenya and have immediate web access – even if the same mobile operator is available in both nations. Conflicting standards prevent the service. Recently, James Munn, Vice President of Qualcomm in South Africa, verbalized his goal to harmonize regional 3G/4G/LTE standards. It’s not the standard that matters, per se, but the fact that the region agrees to adhere to it. He recently told memeburn how regional standarization can lower access costs:

Imagine you’re a handset procurer for a major telecom provider operating in dozens of countries. You want handsets that will work seamlessly for all your markets. A lack of standardisation makes technology more expensive for everyone, including customers”

Undoubtedly, mobile spectrum standardization is a far-sighted step that will make access easier. Governments may have to overcome political agendas. Telecoms operators may be accused of greed. When the dust settles, however, the benefit is in the hands of the consumer. The combination of cheaper handsets and the potential increase in cross-border competition will only further drive down costs. These plans, of course, are contingent on sufficient bandwidith…

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