By A. C. Muhalia –BSC (Electrical &Electronics) and MSC (IS) -University of Nairobi
Infrastructure sharing can minimize unnecessary service disruptions in rapidly growing telecommunications environments like Kenya’s. As telecommunication demand outpaces the development of infrastructure, service disruptions frustrate consumers who rely on the infrastructure for their business and personal communication.
Aware that smooth service delivery is necessary to maximize economic growth, this article describes the methods which operators can employ in order to share infrastructure, and thereby, provide better service and reduce costs. Sharing refers to two or more network operators utilizing network capacity together, and telecommunication infrastructure includes the physical facilities and organizational systems which support technologically-based long distance communication.
This sharing falls into the active and passive categories, and like the rest of the industry, operates under sector specific guidelines and regulations. The power of regulation lies with the Communication Authority of Kenya. The 2013 Kenya Information and Communications Act (KICA) promotes sharing and ensures that operators interconnect in order to offer critical services such as cross network calls, short messages and emergency services. Regulations mandate that operators in this sector must procure network facility provider licenses in order to participate in infrastructure deployment.
Infrastructure sharing has three pillars: first commercial considerations, second technical considerations and finally regulatory considerations. These pillars form the basis of successful infrastructure sharing whether that sharing is active or passive. Technical considerations are the glue that holds commercial and regulatory considerations together. Active sharing necessitates the technical capacity for compatibility to host another player.
Active sharing is when stakeholders share some or all of the electronic elements which belong to one operator. These elements include frequency spectrum, core network elements, antenna systems, transceivers, microwave equipments, lit fiber optic cables, long term evolution, 3G nodes and routers.
Different Forms of Sharing
Passive infrastructure sharing involves no electronic components but is concerned with joint utilization of non-electronic elements such as towers, land, power, cable ladders, ducts, antenna poles, shelters, manholes, air conditioners and fire extinguishers. In passive sharing, individual operators maintain separate elements which together form the active network. For example, the radio access network (RAN) in the base transceiver station (BTS) setup are individually owned and include antenna systems, radio frequency cables, BTS, and core network elements.
Passive infrastructure sharing takes place between operators and includes a variety of stakeholders. For example, to mount an antenna for community broadcasting, a community based organization can lease space on an operator-owned tower in order to mount an antenna for broadcasting, and a manufacturing company can lease tower space to mount a repeater station for very high frequency communication. Through commercial arrangements, utility companies like Kenya Pipeline, Kenya Power and KETRACO offer stakeholders resources like rights of way, fiber optic cables and manholes. The equipment must meet the Communication commission of Kenya’s (CCK) standards such as CCK approves and assigns frequency use.
Thanks to augmented fiber cable infrastructure, Kenya’s transmission speeds have increased tremendously over the last decade. With passive sharing, multiple operators can share fiber cable ducts. An operator can lay cables in ducts which another operator has developed. This sharing is achieved through the deployment of multiple ducts, each of which carry several cores of fiber cable, or through micro duct technology in which a single duct can have several micro ducts.
Steel structures form the bulk of the global system for mobile (GSM) network physical infrastructure and passive sharing. These structures have transmitting microwave antennas which are high enough to provide a line of sight to the next tower. Also, they have GSM panel antennas which are used for cell phones and RF up and downlink communication. These structures also carry waveguides which connect to networks’ active components.
With passive sharing, several operators can use tower infrastructure simultaneously as long as each operator mounts its own equipment on the tower, sufficient space is available and the tower’s structure is stable. Tower-sharing saves operators’ costs and mitigates against environmental concerns about tower proliferation. Assuming operator A requires x number of towers to cover a country and operator B requires the same, with coordination and assuming that the operators’ coverage obligations and goals are the same, the operators will require x towers instead of 2x towers.
When they share ducts, operators enjoy cost savings, reductions in cable cuts, and thanks to standardized installation, higher quality of service. Several operators can share fiber cables which have junction points for dropping or splicing services.
Deploying ducts which can be passively shared is one way of dealing with the limitation of rights of way and way leaves which continued road network infrastructure expansion is currently causing. Well-developed duct and cable systems have very low maintenance costs and, hence, reduce overhead operational costs.
Frequency spectrum is very scarce yet it is the telecommunication industry’s lifeblood. Spectrum sharing is a broad area within active sharing as it covers situations where different services can exist within the same bands’ technical parameters. Examples of this include satellite links sharing bands with fixed links, running low power services in GSM bands and using the white space within TV bands for deploying broadband network. In some parts of the world, operators may share frequency spectrum and Radio access network (RAN) infrastructure. In this situation, operators share all the passive elements, the active RAN and the transceivers.
Spectrum is channelized and for primary GSM in 200 KHz channels, 3G in 5MHz channels. With channel numbers, it is possible to identify and link specific channels to a particular operator. This type of active sharing is complex given that, for optimal operation, it involves a great deal of logical separation and network element configuration.
The telecommunication industry requires intense capital investment as the physical infrastructure absorbs most of the capital expenditure. For successful sharing, the investor must recoup some of the costs from the operator. This recovery could take the form of negotiated commercial rates or the barter trade model according to which one exchanges similar infrastructure with another, i.e. one meter of duct for one meter of duct.
Recently, some companies have been developing infrastructure for licensed stakeholders’ use which implies that, in these cases, companies have fully monetized sharing. This monetization is significant in Kenya where the licensing framework provides infrastructure development through network facilities provider licenses.
For monetization to work, operators must agree on the finances or off-the-shelf rates for accessing the infrastructure. A good example is the arrangement which Airtel, Safaricom, Telkom Kenya Ltd., Essar, broadcasters and learning institutions have for sharing towers. They utilize bartering and monetizing.
For sharing to take place, the infrastructure has to have capacity to accommodate sharing or to meet the compatibility criteria. For example, for a duct to carry extra stakeholders, it has to have extra ducts or space to accommodate more cables. In the absence of extra capacity, stakeholders must upgrade the infrastructure or add new development. Several years ago, as most operation licenses were issued at the same time, every operator moved to deploy single user infrastructure and developed towers and ducts without provision for extra stakeholders. As a result, upgrades are now mandatory and, in some cases, old infrastructure must be demolished.
Multiple user designs and deployments are expensive at first but, in the long run, they are cost effective and efficient. Again, stakeholders can recoup costs by sharing with other stakeholders who may not be able to deploy themselves due financial constraints. Telecommunications infrastructure sharing is a must in Kenya and other countries where operators need to minimize service disruptions and costs.