Dr Imad Holballah, acting CEO of the TRA Lebanon
Dr Imad Holballah, acting CEO of the TRA Lebanon, is delivering the opening day keynote on Day One of the LTE MENA conference, taking place on the 13th-14th May 2013 at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, Dubai, UAE. Ahead of the show we find out more about the complex challenges regarding spectrum that are impacting the roll-out of LTE in the Middle East.
How advanced is data usage in Lebanon?
The dominant player in the mobile arena in Lebanon is the Ministry of Telecommunications (MoT). The MoT has rolled out two 3G HSPA+ networks throughout the country and these are being run by two network operators, Alfa and Touch. The 3G networks can theoretically deliver speeds up to 4Mbits/s. However, the average speeds users experience are normally only in the range of 0.3 – 1 Mbits/s – so the need to move to next generation technology is clear. In Q1 2013, major ISPs entered the 3G data market by introducing new prepaid data SIM cards for tablets, dongles and Wi-Fi routers. In addition, the MoT has recently been testing LTE (mainly at 1800MHz) on both network operators, in preparation for a full launch in the near future.
The LTE MENA conference is taking place on the 13th-14th May 2013 at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, Dubai, UAE. Click here to find out more about the event.
Can you tell me about the spectrum auction process in your region and how it has impacted LTE deployments?
LTE spectrum bands are generally not being auctioned in Middle East countries. Rather LTE network deployments within the region have been utilising frequencies already assigned under current licenses, e.g. Mobily Saudi Arabia, Nawras Oman, Ooredoo Qatar and Etisalat UAE. An auction to sell LTE radio spectrum in Bahrain was halted after a wireless broadband operator appealed against its exclusion from the sale. In Lebanon, the Ministry of Telecommunications assigned spectrum on the 800 and 1800MHz bands without going through a spectrum auction, given that the mobile market has not been liberalised yet.
What are the key challenges that the TRA is facing in terms of getting LTE deployed?
There are many challenges facing LTE deployment in the region. One of the key challenges we see involves the availability of combined spectrum bands for coverage and capacity purposes and to ensure optimal indoor coverage. 800MHz is currently licensed for analogue TV operators awaiting the digital switchover so it could be used for coverage along with other capacity bands (e.g. 2.6MHz)
There will also need to be rules and procedures to encourage infrastructure sharing, particularly involving active sharing (e.g., Single RAN and spectrum sharing) and passive sharing of towers and ducts. A decision on coverage obligations will need to be made on whether it will be applied to specific spectrum bands or licensed to mobile operators irrespective of the operating band. Another issue is that there is a shortage on backhaul spectrum frequencies to satisfy LTE deployments and we need to speed up the process of deploying optical fibre cables for E-node B backhaul. Finally, the availability of multimode multi-band LTE devices is a problem as these are not widely available in the market.
What are the primary concerns of operators in your region and what are the key challenges that they face in the next 12 months?
The major concern of mobile telecom operators is riding the data tsunami in the MENA region while the voice market continues its gradual decline. OTT applications (such as Skype, WhatsApp, Viber) that bring “free voice” and/or “free SMS” are a direct challenge to legacy voice and SMS revenues.
To counter this, operators are looking for partnerships with OTT providers to bundle their services into their triple-play packages. There will also need to be investment in data compression technology to better manage growing data volumes. Additionally, the availability of a simplified and flexible spectrum licensing regime will reduce administrative burdens and spectrum harmonisation and the greater availability of multi-modes multi band devices are essential.
Is there a strong desire from operators for lower frequencies for LTE and is there a desire for a common band (e.g. 1800MHz)
Operators in the region are certainly interested in acquiring low frequency bands for LTE deployments due to their excellent propagation characteristics (e.g., better indoor coverage and greater outdoor coverage). In MEA, operators have started to deploy LTE deployment on 800MHz band. The UAE is preparing to launch it soon and Ooredoo Qatar launched its first LTE network on 800MHz Band 20. In Lebanon, the two mobile operators also started LTE pilot projects early this year for networks on 800MHz. 1800MHz is also popular as an international frequency to aid global LTE roaming and about 10 out of 16 LTE Networks in the Middle-East were deployed on that frequency.
Does LTE throw up any specific issues such as bill shock through excessive data usage?
The LTE issues are essentially the same as that of 3G. To avoid ‘bill shock’, mobile operators in Lebanon are currently relying on sending several SMS messages to warn the subscriber of their data usage at 50 per cent, 80 per cent of their data limit, when they have hit it, and of the charges when they are roaming. Despite these efforts some consumers in Lebanon are still facing high bills such as when roaming for the first time, due to the lack of experience in the data usage, and sometimes when they sign up for a lower cost plan that does not fit their data usage needs.