This is a reaction to the announcement made by Botswana Telecommunications Authority (BTA) in the Daily News dated October 8, 2007, under the title “Stop depletion of cell phone airspace”. The article in question is not only inaccurate factually but is also misleading, and may bring confusion and unnecessary uncertainty as to what exactly mobile phone users are supposed to do.
Though this response was prompted by the BTA statement, I will also take the opportunity to discuss new trends and challenges in our technological landscape.
In the Daily News article, the BTA Senior Public Relations Officer, Mr Aaron Nyelese, warned that as mobile phone users get new sim cards “this results in the reduction of airspace reserved for cell phone numbers”.
Further explaining that “each cell phone number was awarded a frequency signal. Therefore, an increase in the numbers results in a decrease in the airspace reserved for cell phones”. Adding further that “the frequency, which was managed by BTA, has been divided into a block of spectrums, which host other frequency users such as the Botswana Defence Force, Botswana Police, Radio Botswana and the Botswana Television, as well as security and cab companies “. And finally concluded by explaining that “the corporation (BTC) was a lease line for Internet services where organizations bought capacities to use the Internet, which was conceived by the United States army for communication purposes during World War I and II “.
It is my firm belief that statements made by public bodies such as BTA must not only be accurate, but must also be informative and should leave members of the public in a state where they understand correct facts pertaining to the subject being addressed. However, the BTA statement is lacking in all these aspects. While it is proper to encourage mobile phone users to maintain the use of the same number for convenience, it is misleading to link the mobile phone numbers to frequency spectrum allocated to network operators. It is not true that each phone number is allocated a frequency signal. It is also not true that the increase in the number of phone numbers results in the depletion of airspace as announced in the statement. One would appreciate that frequency spectrum is consumed only during the use of the mobile device (or the phone number). Only during the exchange of data and signals between the device and the Mobile Switching Center (MSC) does the device switch to a certain frequency. This is true in both Packet Switched Networks and Circuit Switched Networks. The Packet Switched Networks are even more efficient in the preservation of frequency spectrum since multiple clients can transmit over the same frequency range almost simultaneously within a given Cell (a cell is a region served by a particular transmission tower, hence the name ‘Cell Phone’ ). In short, even if a user has ten sim cards and uses only one of them at a time, there will be no overhead added to the network or further frequency resources consumed. The situation only changes when he/she uses all the ten sim cards at the same time. And as such, there is no how the lost sim cards can ‘deplete the airspace’ when they are not in use. The suggestion that each mobile number is tied to a particular frequency is not true since the management of which frequency range should be used by a subscriber is managed by the Mobile Switching Center and the base station within which the subscriber is currently located. The base station decides how users within a particular Cell share the available frequency for receiving and sending data or signals. A device can use a frequency range for one call or data transmission, and in the next call use a different frequency range as allocated by the base station. Hence, through these frequency sharing technologies commonly Frequency Division Multiple Access (FDMA) and Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA), different mobile devices (or phone numbers) can share the use of the same frequency range over and over. The arrival of third generation wireless networks will allow even more data transfer at higher speed to take place within shared frequency range.
Further statements made by BTA about Internet and its origins also need to be corrected. That the Internet “was conceived by the United States army for communication purposes during World War I and II” is not accurate. Worse still, during World War I the computer had not even been invented. So, how could the Internet, which is a network of computers, be conceived at that time? Even at the end of the World War II in 1945, what is widely considered to be the first computing device was still being tested. The ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer ) which was a huge piece of equipment filling a whole house and weighing 27 tonnes, is what ignited the computer revolution. The Internet (networking of computers) was only conceived in the 60s when the computer had matured. It subsequently took three decades for the use of networked computers to gain popularity. In fact, the boom started in 1993 after staffers at the University of Illinois developed a software that could download files from a remote server computer at the same time allowing graphical presentation of data. Such softwares came to be called ‘Web Browsers’ as they allowed users to browse resources stored in networked remote computers (The Web). This development of the first web browser gave rise to the World Wide Web (WWW), which today we commonly refer to as the Internet. Since 1993, the Internet has grown in leaps and is now at the center of globalization. And notably, in 1995 software giants Microsoft joined the fray by releasing its own web browser called Internet Explorer which is the dominant web browser on the Internet today.
Developed societies have taken full advantage of the Internet, making it part of their daily lives, from basic communication, research, media sharing and shopping, to social networking, entertainment and building powerful business networks. Meanwhile, in our region, high connection costs and low access to desktop computers prohibits wide adoption and use of the Internet, despite its enormous benefits. However, recent studies are pointing to an increase in the use of the Internet particularly by youth in the Southern African region as a whole. Social networking sites, video & music sharing sites, and discussion forums are among the most used Internet services in our region. While the Internet has been restricted to desktop computers for a long time, there is new opportunity offered by mobile phones in Botswana where cell phone penetration exceeds PC penetration. Modern mobile phones offer access to the mainstream Internet albeit with limited capability. The power of Internet on mobile phones should however, not only be viewed in the sense of accessing websites, but also on the ability to access any form of information or data stored on a web server and making it available through the mobile phone. Herein lies a great opportunity that can see many Batswana who own cell phones directly enjoying benefits offered by the Internet: Services such as being able to search Yellow Pages directory of local businesses on a mobile phone, accessing local Classified Adverts, Chatting, Social networking, Checking the weather or reading news headlines, all these from a mobile phone that is able to connect to the Internet. With many phones on the market today being Java Phones which are able to connect to the Internet, the issue of lack of access to desktop computers could be of no effect as mobile phone users would have an alternative.
However, in Botswana, such a dream is faced with stumbling blocks mainly in the pricing of mobile Internet by the network operators. While we appreciate that at last Mascom, for instance, recently announced packages for wireless Internet, the charges as compared to some of our neighbours are prohibitively high. The fact that mobile Internet is unknown in Botswana combined with sky-high charges erases any prospects for wide adoption of this new technology. For a quick overview: In Namibia and South Africa, network operators charge as low as 20 cents for one Megabyte of data transfer while Mascom announced a startup price of P3 (three Pula) per Megabyte of data transfer, which is a whooping 19 times the charges offered by our neighbours. Notwithstanding the fact that in South Africa for instance, the speed of transmission is higher than that offered by our local network operators. As a rule of thumb, one would expect that local operators would set their prices to be at par with those of our neighbours in order to attract more customers to the service, since there is always an option to raise the price in future. With affordable charges, there is no doubt that mobile Internet access is the next big thing in Botswana’s ICT landscape.
Mpho Setuke writes from Lubeck, Germany