She’s a rainbow

Posted on Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Last week Colombia’s MinTIC issued a press release on Minister Constaín’s remarks to kick off the 8th International Spectrum Congress, held in Bogotá. I attended once many years ago and it was so far over my head technically that I have never been back. But the Minister made some important strategy statements, especially about the importance of getting spectrum policy right.

She is quoted as saying “Spectrum must be a public policy tool that helps us close the digital divide”.

Perhaps a tad ‘over-the-top’ as written but, frankly not far off the mark.

She identifies two fundamental changes to spectrum policy that are included in the new ICT law:

  1. Extending the length of a spectrum license from 10 years to a potential 30 years;
  2. Basing spectrum awards on maximizing connectivity instead of maximizing the financial return.

The first makes perfect sense and it should be no surprise to frequent readers that I wholeheartedly support the second. I have long believed that maximizing the financial return merely delayed or weakened deployment even though the point of allocating spectrum was to have it deployed.

On the first point, the press release goes on to say

“With the Bill for the Modernization of the ICT Sector a change is made in the spectrum allocation period of up to 30 years, depending on the proponent’s plans. That is, if it (the plan) is going to connect to the Orinoquía or the Amazon, it will take longer to recover the investment. In this way we are going to use spectrum as a tool to reach the least favored and the most vulnerable with connectivity,” explained the ICT Minister.

That suggests that the spectrum agency can decide the length of the license based on the proposed deployment plan. I can see some legal and practical issues with that, so I hope this just becomes ’30 years’ in all cases. Ten years is far too short for a reasonable business plan.

Apart from the specific recommendations in the new law, there are a few more things that I like about this strategy by the Ministry.

Focus on wireless broadband not wireline

Another of my long-time bugaboos is that governments have been too obsessed with wireline / fixed broadband (FBB). This made sense, perhaps, when our goal was to fill in the top of the pyramid where families have the financial means to pay for fiber or high-end DSL and to pay for the PCs/Macs, tablets and connected TVs that take advantage of FBB.

But, apart from getting fiber into secondary cities, which Telefonica at least seems motivated to do in Latin America, our penetration challenge is getting it to those lower down in the economic strata. That has always meant and will probably forever mean, getting broadband to a mobile handset.

True, WiFi is often the preferred access technology for such users and the connectivity for WiFi is often associated with FBB. But cellular base stations need to be backhauled over high-speed broadband, usually fixed, as well. We are really talking about two different wireless technologies with two different protocols and two different business models.

The underlying policy strategy is using wireless and the issues are how to manage spectrum and business models to get the broadest coverage possible at the best end-user price. If operators find there is a business case, they will build using the technology best suited to making money. The challenge has been getting economically viable devices into users’ hands and wireless’s vast scale means it is the best way to do that.

Focus on what encourages investment

I still think the Minister is only got the necessary but not the sufficient, however I can only applaud her focus on encouraging investment. For too long, this has been ignored by successive Colombian governments.

Or, worse, simply taken for granted.

Companies have invested to maintain their contractual and regulatory commitments. Or where they saw there was a clear business case, usually with a fairly short-term payback.

But this government’s objective is to get decent broadband into areas that the operators obviously perceive as low value or too risky. Otherwise, they would already have done it.

Now, I still think there is a US$4B elephant in the room which has yet to be even acknowledged in public. But making encouraging investment the main priority is a start. First, admit there is a problem.

No mention of 5G

This is perhaps the first major public declaration by Minister Constaín that has not mentioned 5G.

Maybe I am being naïve but I certainly hope this means that she realizes (or her advisors realize) that 5G is not relevant to her stated goal of connecting all Colombians and connecting them well (“conectar a todos los colombianos y conectarlos bien”). I am not denying the importance of 5G in the telecom industry or 5G for certain applications in the Colombian market. But if the objective is to bring rural areas, secondary cities and lower economic strata the same Internet experience that wealthier, urban Colombians enjoy today, then 5G is a distraction not a tool.

I like organizations that state a clear goal and do not get sidetracked by pretty, shiny things no matter how attractive or even important, but which are not relevant to the goal.

Recognition of the importance of getting spectrum policy right

Like my challenges with staying awake in the International Spectrum Congress session that I attended, I assume it is hard to get Ministers’ attention on spectrum issues. Maybe one of the reasons that financial issues get too much attention in designing auctions is that they are easier to understand and more concrete when presented to cabinet or even the Minister.

In 20 years of working in the Colombian industry, I believe this is the first time I have seen a Ministerial press release state a clear overarching objective (universal high-quality broadband), give a strategy (encouraging investment) and then link achieving that strategy to properly managing spectrum.

Again, not sufficient but a whole lot more likely to be successful than many / most / all previous attempts.

Have you seen her all in gold? / Like a queen in days of old? / She shoots colors all around / Like a sunset going down.

Colombia’s Minister wants to allocate spectrum – shoot colors all around if you will – to minimize the digital divide. But she hopes it is a sunrise not a sunset that results.

(Title Reference: She’s a Rainbow is not one of the Rolling Stones most famous pieces – unless perhaps, again, you are of a certain age. It was never a big seller – although top 10 in Canada – but a frequent inclusion in Stones  compilations / greatest hits. Maybe it is remembered from a late 1990’s iMAC ad. Maybe not. The allusion should be obvious, I think. Maybe not. From the Stones only ‘psychedelic’ album, 1967’s Their Satanic Majesties Request, the only time that they tried to compete directly with the Beatles, who had released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band earlier in the year. Luckily, they abandoned that plan and went on to release, IMHO, the greatest sequence of rock-and-roll albums of all time: Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street. Just compare She’s a Rainbow with the next Stones single release, Jumpin’ Jack Flash to see what I mean. Some of the albums are stronger than others. There may be better albums on their own by other bands. But the set of four, one after the other, has not been bettered.)


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