Consultants engaged by Botswana Telecommunications Authority (BTA) to carry out a study to inform the development of appropriate policy and regulatory framework have recommended that infrastructure sharing be made mandatory although there are both benefits and disadvantages.
The team that was commissioned by the country’s telecommunications regulator have come up with a consultation discussion document and brought examples from other countries that Botswana could learn from.
Although some operators have been sharing since the issuance of service neutral licensing, especially the underutilised BTC backbone, the Ministry of Transport and Communications and BTA want to develop a policy and regulatory framework that will guide telecommunications sector in Botswana.
A Consultative Document on the Development of Guidelines on Sharing Communications Infrastructure in Botswana prepared by ICT Consultants revealed that sharing will bring benefits to consumers, operators, local authorities and the environment.
“Operators can reduce their capital expenditures by sharing their infrastructure,” stated the discussion paper.
“That is, instead of each operator constructing its own infrastructure, the operators could reduce their cost by either jointly constructing infrastructure or leasing out their existing infrastructure to others so as to defray the sunk costs.”
Licensed operators in Botswana are BTC, Mascom, Orange, Value Added Network Operators (VANS) and Broadcasting Services. Other private network operators that own infrastructure for their internal communication include BPC, WUC, and Botswana Police.
However, the Botswana Police is exempted from licensing. BTC has the biggest underutilised infrastructure that covers a larger area in the country that consists of equipment sites, national and regional fibre optic cable rings, cable ducts and telecommunications towers.
On the other hand, the two mobile phone companies have national infrastructure which comprises bases stations sites and towers.
The paper, which is still in a draft form and seeking comments, argues that shared use of communications infrastructure will reduce impact on the environment that results from construction of multiple constructions of similar facilities in the same area.
However, on the flipside, sharing may bring issues of capacity bottlenecks as original network may not have been designed to carry the traffic from other networks.
Equally, investment costs associated with reconfiguring the network are relatively high and the operators are reluctant in planning with additional capacity to accommodate additional players in future unless there is guarantee that it will be rented out.
Competition issue may arise as some network elements are critical for competition purposes and operators maybe reluctant to share them like some operators are reluctant to share network switches holding commercial sensitive information.
Sharing may also limit the capability of the infrastructure owner to fully exploit its network capacity and issues of site maintenance also need to be spelt out. The quality of service may also be an issue when operators are sharing infrastructure since a failure on one network element may negatively affect the quality of service provided by another operator.
On the other hand, the operators may be at different stages of maturity having different visions with new entrants may be keen on introducing new generation of technologies while the incumbent may want to continue with their legacy technologies.
Currently Botswana has no infrastructure policy framework although in the past BTC has allowed other operators to use its network.
Although Botswana passively allows sharing, many countries are ahead as they have policy frameworks in place.
A number of interventions like the Telecommunications Policy 1995, Telecommunications Act, ICT Policy commonly known as Maitlamo, Broadcasting Act 1998 and Draft Broadcasting Policy 2004 encourage sharing.
But for example, Tanzania, which is Botswana’s SADC peer, has promulgated regulations in 2005 on infrastructure sharing in communications sector as a whole.
The regulations require that sharing be achieved through commercial negotiations between the parties based on fair and non discriminatory principles.
The other example given by the paper is infrastructure sharing between mobile operators in Ireland. In 2007, the regulator in Ireland facilitated the signing of a Code of Practice on sharing of radio sites by all mobile operators.
The consultants have praised the Irish model saying ‘in our opinion the Irish approach shows an innovative combination of mandating infrastructure sharing through legal and enforceable licence conditions complemented by industry codes of practice’.
As for the New Zealand position on sharing, as per the country’s Telecommunications Act 2001, colocation of mobile facilities is a service which is not subject to price regulation.
Thari Pheko, the Chief Executive Officer of BTA, also praised sharing saying it will help in bringing communication to other parts of the country.
“In our country with its small population and vast land mass, communication infrastructure sharing may be the most cost-effective way of telecommunications development”.