Gov’t opens up 5G spectrum for all telcos

Local innovation critical to digital economy’s contribution to growth

By Rashidatu IBRAHIM

The Minister of Communications and Digitalisation, Ursula Owusu-Ekuful, has disclosed government’s decision to forego auctioning the country’s 5G spectrum, in a bid to provide a level playing field for all telecommunications firms.

The decision, the minister explained, aligns with the country’s commitment to fostering competition and reducing consumer reliance on a few dominant telecom companies in the industry, which can afford to purchase spectrum.

“There was talk about how we are going to do 5G. We will not auction the spectrum because it is only one or two big companies that can buy it and it will continue to create an even more difficult situation for us with the dominance of one or two entities in this country. We will continue to partner the private sector in this area as well. Government has significant telecoms assets – digital infrastructure assets. So, we will build a shared network; a shared neutral infrastructure for nationwide 4G and 5G,” she said.

She made these remarks during her briefing to Parliament regarding the Internet disruption caused by damage to submarine cables, urging expedited efforts to restore the network. She noted that cabinet has already approved the development of a neutral 4G/5G network for operators to leverage in delivering their services.

“I think what has happened has shifted our focus to the need to expedite action on getting that network up and running; that is the commitment that we’ve already undertaken. Cabinet has already given us approval to work on this neutral 4G/5G network which will be available for all network operators, and even new entrants can come to Ghana and utilise it,” she noted, adding that the aim is to reduce dependence on a limited number of dominant companies.

Commenting further, she said: “We are hoping to build more redundancy in the industry, so that even the smaller companies can also ride on this network to deliver services to citizens”.

For the larger companies, she said they can also utilise the network to address their coverage gaps, thereby reducing the need for heavy capital investment in infrastructure.

It will also allow them to focus on operational expenditure and differentiate their service offerings for subscribers.

Internet disruption

In the early hours of 14th March, 2024, the Ministry of Communications and Digitalisation and the National Communications Authority (NCA) were notified of Internet disruptions on both the Telecel and MTN networks, which had caused a major loss of Internet service.

Investigations, according to the Communications Minister, revealed that there had been multiple undersea cable disruptions that had affected mobile data and fixed data services nationwide on MTN and Telecel.

“For clarity, this incident may have been caused by a landslide that has wiped out most of the fibre cables between Ghana and Europe that have a landing station here. A separate event in the red sea has cut fibres going around the other direction from Africa to Europe. By chance, there are two cables that are unaffected: Google/Equiano cable and Angola to Brazil cables. However, these cannot support the lost capacity with the same quality levels and the same latency within a reasonable time,” the minister stated.

On how long the situation would last, she said: “The affected section of the submarine cable will have to be pulled up from the seabed onto a ship where it will be spliced by skilled technicians to complete the repair; then it will be tested for any defects and then lowered back to the seabed. This process might take 1-2 weeks for repairs while about 2-3 weeks of transit time may be required for the vessel to pick up the spares and travel from Europe to West Africa once the vessel is mobilised. That is why the NCA estimates a minimum period of 5 weeks for the repair work,” Mrs. Owusu-Ekuful told Parliament.

Use of satellite as an alternative

Regarding the use of satellite service as an alternative to submarine cables, the minister emphasised that the bandwidth provided by satellite back-up for Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) cannot fully substitute the capacity lost during the outage.

However, she suggested that satellite back-up for consumers is more viable although she highlighted its affordability concerns, noting that the cost is relatively high.

Among other immediate measures to deal with the situation, she said government will license satellite gateway earth stations, landing rights and satellite earth station networks.

“Oneweb has already been licensed, Starlink is in the process of being licensed and other operators are being encouraged to land in Ghana.

“We must also invest in operationalising RAScom – the Regional African Satellite Company, instead of each country hounding it alone to provide satellite Internet services. All MNOs must arrange and implement alternative routes to restore full service by 30th March 2024. Organisations and enterprises are encouraged to host their content, databases, applications and services in at least two tier 3/4 data centres in different locations. Public organisations must utilise the national data centre as either their primary or back-up data host,” she added.

Satellite licensing framework

She mentioned that the National Communications Authority (NCA) has formulated a Satellite Licensing Framework which has received approval from its board, with processes underway for final policy approval.

The framework will delineate the policies and regulations concerning frequency authorisations for satellite services in the country. It will detail the different categories of satellite services, licensing prerequisites and associated fees.

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