Redefining Harmonisation: essential for future progress?

Middle East CountriesAt the recent Middle East spectrum management conference there was lengthy discussion about how much spectrum would be needed and when.  One parallel issue which was raised though time precluded complete discussion was the subject of harmonisation, or rather the definition and possible re-definition of harmonisation to speed up that spectrum release.

Harmonisation is not well defined and spectrum managers have found various interpretations.  Harmonisation is defined in ECC Report 80 as the “designation of a band for a specified application”.   In Europe, the permitted applications are registered in EFIS, the European Frequency Information System. In EFIS, allocations, applications, band plans and technologies can be compared country by country – effectively viewing the degree to which harmonisation has been achieved.  This leads us to conclude that harmonisation is the agreement between countries to use a common set of allocations, applications, band plans and technologies band by band.

Customers Drive Spectrum Policy

But the customer should be driving spectrum policy through industry and the NRAs.  Let’s look from the customer’s view.  In this case the mobile communications customer.  At that same conference any mobile user would benefit from 2G 900MHz and 3G 2100MHz services.  In the hotel he or she could connect over WiFi.  And if they had a WiMAX account, there was 2.3GHz WiMAX fixed access too.  So does the customer care about harmonisation?  Does he care that the 2100MHz channels are offset in frequency from the band plan used in the countries adjacent?  This offset means that the band plan is different.  The band is, by the above definition, not harmonised.

The customer is roaming.  Do they care that in their home country the 2100MHz band is still in the hands of the military and that the 1800MHz band is not used yet in the host country in which they are now operating?  In all cases the answer has to be no.  They only care about accessing the services and applications that they need.   Harmonisation in the Middle East is still fragmented and this makes the region a good testing ground for new theories.  The mobile network deployments there are a real-life example of why we need not demand strict harmonisation in the future.  Customers can still derive the required benefit without strict historically defined harmonisation.

Benefits of Harmonisation

Roaming: an essential feature of mobile networksClassically there are three benefits cited in favour of harmonisation: support for roaming, economies of scale in R&D and production and simplification of border coordination.

On many mobile devices in that conference hall, connection was available via a connection mix of about twenty allocations, applications, band plans and technologies. Today’s devices have multi-band, multi-application and multi-technology capability.  Roaming is a network-level facility, requiring only operability on the roamed network independent of harmonisation.  And we see the result of economies of scale in the high street in every town: low handset prices.   By all of this evidence, roaming and economies are not now issues.  That leaves border coordination.

Network design in the borderlands is a complex engineering problem that we have learned to cope with.  We’ve developed the methods and have reduced interference to manageable levels, even when very dissimilar allocations, applications, band plans and technologies are used on either side.  So whilst there’s complexity, the problems are not insurmountable.  Strict harmonisation across borders is not essential though a degree of coordination is desirable (for example, at least agreeing a common service such as ‘mobile’).

Dis-benefits of Harmonisation

The most significant downside of harmonisation is that it slows decision making and hence slows industry’s access to spectrum.  It takes huge time to perfectly harmonise with neighbours let alone on a World basis.  Whilst desirable, the dis-benefits far outweigh the benefits.  It’s perhaps time we re-defined the word.  Taking the customer’s perspective, harmonisation requires that NRAs achieve compatible allocations, applications, band plans and technologies across borders and throughout regions: compatible, not necessarily exactly the same.  Compatible also means that there is scope for the markets to decide.  Compatible is in line with the idea of service and technology neutrality.

Planning the Future

So how does an NRA proceed to plan for compatible service harmonisation?  First the pre-requisite:  the NRA must have significant competence in spectrum modelling since compatibility needs to be tested in the local context.  Then the ITU conference structure can be used to give a high level framework for band use.  Thereafter the NRA needs to negotiate through a system of bi-lateral and multi-lateral agreements, the basket of allocation, application, band-plan and technologies that yield the flexibility that the NRA desires on behalf of its industry. That done, it then needs to enshrine these agreements in policy and in licence constraints when releasing spectrum to market.

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