The process of uniform allocation of frequency bands across an entire region is called as Spectrum Harmonization. At the global level it is the ITU which facilitates the harmonization of frequency bands by the three regions that the world is divided in to. Allocations made by ITU are further coordinated by the regulators and at times the Governments of neighboring countries also facilitate the process. Spectrum Harmonization is a complex and vast field which requires deliberations and planning to fully reap the benefits offered by it. Countries with harmonized band plans benefit and those lacking it suffer adversely for years. This is because if band plans are auctioned without prior planning for harmonization and implemented then various issues arise, the most damaging of which is the cross border interference, which is harmful for the neighboring countries. A harmonized spectrum plan will benefit the region immensely specially for socio economic development and will offer more advantages to the whole region. This also ensures good services for the users and good growth chances for the operators.
While writing about the Spectrum Harmonization it is important to highlight that here we are talking about FDD frequency band plans, that is separate Uplink and Downlink frequency band plans. Because predominantly the world over FDD is being used and so here in the context of Pakistan and its neighbors we are also cite examples of issues arising out of these assignments.
Advantages of Spectrum Harmonization. Spectrum harmonization benefits the whole region directly and as a result of it the Operators and Consumers also benefit. The advantages offered to these two beneficiaries are discussed in the preceding sections.
- International Roaming. With harmonized Spectrum between two neighboring countries in a certain region roaming is greatly facilitated by allowing consumers to use voice as well as data services ubiquitously without requiring them to change cell phones and get new connections when going from one country to another. In Europe the tariffs are also kept similar is some cases so that consumers or subscribers are facilitated. With wider adoption of harmonized bands world over international roaming will be easy to implement, a good example in this case is the APT 700 MHz band.
- Economies of Scale and hence cheaper devices. It appears that the APT 700 MHz band will become the band of choice almost universally. It has seen wider acceptance as at least 42 countries have committed to adopt this band. According to some experts this may bring the cost of Smartphones down to as low as $ 30 which is really going to be good for consumers. This will also mean more competition and healthy business opportunities.
- Better Services. While Spectrum harmonization at the local level will result in assignment of contiguous blocks to the operators and thus facilitate them in meeting the ever increasing consumers demand of data by carrier aggregation, at the same time in the international context spectrum harmonization will spur more competition thus easing provision of better services.
- Choices. With more competition there’s more options and hence more choices. This means more options to choose devices as well as services being offered by the operators.
- Hassle Free Services. With international roaming easy the services being offered to the consumers will become more hassle free which will enhance business activity and is more of a domino effect.
- Reduced Cross Border Interference. One of the biggest benefits which directly as well as indirectly effects all the above mentioned factors is the presence or absence of cross border interference which might be harmful. Spectrum harmonization at regional level obviates this problem while the absence of harmonized bands at regional level may lead to (harmful) interference between neighboring countries. Although there exist measures such as the HCM for reducing interference between neighboring countries but this entails long administrative as well as technical procedures.
Case study Pakistan and its neighbors. A small case study based on Pakistan and its neighboring countries India and Afghanistan is presented based on their respective frequency assignments. Since Pakistan and Afghanistan have somewhat harmonized bands so there is no interference between these countries, however this is not so in case of Pakistan and India, as a result of this both Pakistan and India intermittently experience cross border interference which has been badly affecting the QoS of the some operators, has been creating problems for the administrations of both countries and is a now a long standing issue which to this day remains unresolved.
Both Pakistan and Afghanistan mobile operators have assignments in GSM 900 and 1800 MHz bands. At the same time both Pakistan and Afghanistan are also using 2100 MHz bands as a result of this there is no frequency interference issues between the two countries. There also exists roaming agreement between the two countries, as a large number of Pakistanis are working in Afghanistan so subscribers from Pakistan benefit from the roaming facility between both both countries.
Both India and Pakistan are using GSM 900 and GSM 1800 bands. Besides this India is using CDMA 850 Band 5 which had downlink from 869 ~ 894 MHz which has an overlap from 880 to 894 MHz in the GSM 900 (Pakistan) Uplink. As a result of this GSM 900 ARFCNs 975 ~ 1023 are affected by 3 CDMA carriers each of two operators, seriously impacting the QoS of CMPak Pakistan. The problem is exacerbated by tropospheric ducting phenomena because of which the CDMA downlinks travel wide distances and are affecting large areas of Pakistan. As the Uplink is always very sensitive so the minutest of power levels are able to disturb a considerable portion of one operator. Numerous network optimization exercises have been carried out by the operators of both countries under the auspices of their respective regulators as well ITU-R. However, the problem hasn’t died down. There exist two options now, either go for a deliberate exercise at a bigger level to restrict power, adjust antenna heights, tilt (electronic as well as physical) to solve this problem, or to adopt harmonized plans. In the former case it might not work because already the CDMA carriers are being received due to atmospheric ducting at far off places, and nit just at the border areas, in the latter case it will entail a refarm process which is again time consuming and requires deliberate efforts. An interim solution worked out by the Regulator and the Government has been to allocate additional spectrum in another band to pacify the affected operator which is suffering adversely due to this interference.
The above case study is evident of the fact that Spectrum Harmonization can and will solve the cross border interference issues between countries while at the same time it will facilitate international roaming, bringing in benefits for the consumers and good business for the operators. Also it will bring down the cost of equipment and support ecosystem development considerably which is good for consumers and operators both and will also enhance trade between countries. Also that a spectrum refarming process to solve the interference issues is a big time consuming exercise which might not be taken by one country solely to solve the problem of another country. Needless to say with mobile broadband taking off allover the world it is imperative that administrations world over take notice of this important issue.