Open Telecom Data – Moving Forward

The value of being connected to a communication network is steadily rising. More than a decade ago researchers established that simple proximity to a communication network was directly correlated to a reduction in the probability of dying from malaria. Today, with smartphones delivering powerful generic services like group and personal messaging and more specific apps aimed at critical sectors like education, agriculture, and others, communication networks are approaching the status of essential infrastructure for a modern economy.
And yet, mobile subscriber growth is slowing as the current economics of mobile network operators struggle to find viability in markets with subsistence level incomes and/or sparsely populated regions. Attempts to address this problem through universal service strategies/funds have met with limited success.
This presents a conundrum for policy-makers and regulators where value continues to accrue to those with affordable access to communication infrastructure while the unconnected fall further and further behind by simply staying in the same place. Those who most desperately need support are cut off from access to opportunity, to social and health safety nets, to education, to information that can improve lives and to platforms to demand change. It is ironic, or perhaps tragic, that the voice of the unconnected are not heard on this issue for the very reason that they are unconnected.
In order to address this issue, fresh thinking is required. Previously, solving connectivity challenges could only be tackled by entire governments investing vast resources in state-owned networks. The mobile phone revolution opened the door to private sector investment in telecoms and new business models like pay-as-you-go services extended sustainable communication services further than anyone could have imagined. Yet becoming a mobile network operator still involves millions of dollars, creating a high barrier to market entry.
There are a number of factors that suggest that the telecommunications landscape is shifting once again.

  •   The value chain of telecommunications networks is becoming disaggregated. Previously in order to enter a market, an operator needed to invest in international, national, middle mile, and last mile infrastructure. Now we are beginning to see competition in each of those segments.
  • The spread of fibre optic infrastructure, both undersea and terrestrial is changing the access market. While there is no question that fibre optic networks are increasing the ability of existing operators to deliver broadband, those same networks are opening up possibilities for new players who now can deliver more targeted, localised, affordable solutions to unserved populations.
  • Changes in last mile technology are also opening up new possibilities. The spread of WiFi as an access technology is empowering both commercial, government, and community access initiatives to offer local services. Dynamic spectrum technology also shows promise as an alternative access technology.
  • Finally, the meteoric growth of access and mass manufacturing has brought down the cost of access technologies to the point where they are within the reach of small scale operators. Low-cost solar-powered Open Source GSM base stations can be deployed for a fraction of the cost models of existing mobile network operators.

All of these changes represent genuine cause for optimism that it is possible to sustainably connect everyone on the planet. However, in order for that to happen, changes in access policy and regulation are required. And those changes need to be informed by accurate data on existing telecommunication infrastructure and its use. This includes data on the extent and uptake of fibre optic networks, towers used by mobile operators, broadcasters and ISPs, as well as the wireless spectrum assignments that are assigned to operators. The pricing of wholesale networks is also an important data point, especially from the point of view of regional benchmarking.
To date, public access to any of the above information has been through communication regulators who collect some or all of this information from licensed operators. Some of this information may be passed on to the public through the regulator website. In some cases the operators themselves may release some of this information. What is evident from an examination of the websites of communication regulators is that there is no consistency as to what information is made publicly available and how detailed that information is.
In the early days of mobile networks (and fibre networks) there was not that much emphasis on accurate mapping of network infrastructure in part because operators were expanding so rapidly at the time. Now, as subscriber growth is slowing and the challenge of providing affordable access in more difficult regions becomes more evident, it is essential to have more accurate information on the state of network growth and the resources in use.
It is also essential that this data be made available to the public as Open Data. There are several reasons for this:

  • Because a wider range of actors from community networks to wireless ISPs to municipalities have the potential to address access gaps in a sustainable manner, we need public access to telecom infrastructure data in order to open the doors to collective, community, and entrepreneurial approaches to infrastructure deployment. Open data on telecoms infrastructure would enable the identification of infrastructure gaps and opportunities.
  • Transparency is essential in any industry where hundreds of millions of dollars are invested by both private and public sector organisations. Public data will provide an important reality check.
  • Comparative analysis. Telecommunications infrastructure varies dramatically from country to country and within countries yet there is very little comparison of physical infrastructure, spectrum assignments, and backhaul costs. Having common, public standards for telecom data will enable these comparisons and help to identify outliers both good and bad.
  • Telecom infrastructure is enabling the profound social and economic massive impact that we see as a result of the spread voice and data networks. The opportunity to compare infrastructure development with other social and economic indicators represents a significant opportunity to understand more about their impact.

The Open Data movement in government has been growing for over a decade. It contributes to more accountable and democratic institutions, and is one way that governments can meet their obligation to provide access to information. The Open Data standard of providing timely, accessible, complete, affordable, and non-discriminatory access to data is ideal for the telecoms sector which stands to benefit from the point of view of both transparency and innovation. While blanket approaches to Open Data in government have not always been successful there is substantial evidence to suggest that more targeted, bottom-up approaches to Open Data can have very positive outcomes. Some examples include Open Spending, Extractive industries’ Publish What You Pay and London Transport.
The rest of this document looks at specific aspects of the telecommunications sector and attempts to show why transparency is essential for it. Further, it demonstrates that good practice almost always exists for open data in telecoms but it is not widespread. Promoting Open Telecom Data is not about doing something new but rather about normalising the examples of good behaviour that already exist and aligning with the principals of the Open Data movement.
The spread of undersea fibre optic cables around Africa since 2009, followed closely by the rapid spread of terrestrial fibre optic infrastructure, is nothing short of a revolution. It has spread far faster that anyone would have imagined possible. There are perhaps only two or three countries in Africa that do not now have a national fibre optic backbone. Many countries have several. Fibre optic networks are the deep water ports of the Internet; they enable broadband capacity at orders of magnitude larger than any other kind of access technology and at very low latency. For terrestrial networks in particular, the capacity of this infrastructure is so great that it is effectively a non-rival resource: access for one service provider does not diminish opportunity for other providers.
This has tremendous potential to level the playing field in terms of access provision. Any would-be service provider with affordable access to a fibre optic backbone has the potential to be a serious competitor to more established network operators. I have been building a map of fibre optic telecommunications infrastructure on the continent for the last five years. The vast majority of the maps that went into the project were not publicly available and required considerable time and effort to acquire whether by requesting information through official channel or more often begging for favours from contacts in the industry.
The reluctance of operators to share this information betrays an apprehension that it may somehow compromise their competitive edge. But in many cases, operators have simply not considered the issue from a strategic perspective. While the majority of operators are reluctant to offer any detailed information about their fibre networks, their response stands in stark contrast to companies like Dark Fibre Africa in South Africa and regional operator Liquid Telecom who readily publish maps of their fibre networks. Dark Fibre Africa stands out in the detail and ease-of-use of their maps. This sort of good practice is easily replicable by other operators. It is just a case of changing the norms.
Taking this information out of the narrow group of stakeholders within which it resides and opening it up to public input and discussion can have multiple benefits. For example, a small rural municipality might determine from a public fibre map that it is in their interest to invest in 50 kilometres of fibre network to connect to a nearby network. A province or state might determine that their region is suffering due to a lack of fibre infrastructure investment. A school or a hospital could fundraise for better access if they can show that a fibre optic cable is within a reasonable distance. From a national strategic perspective, fibre optic infrastructure is now comparable in terms of importance with other basic infrastructure like roads, railways, and bridges. The public should be aware of it in order to identify opportunities to connect to it and to identify gaps where more investment is needed. Making this information public can also be good for operators who can use the scope of their investment in fibre infrastructure to market their services.
Once the end of the fibre network is reached, it is wireless technologies that typically deliver the last/first mile of connectivity to citizens. Wireless technologies are dependent on national regulatory authorities to grant specific permission to use any given set of radio frequencies. To become a wireless network operator, a license to operate radio equipment within a given set of frequencies is typically required. The one exception to this are the ISM or unlicensed bands (used by technologies like WiFi, Bluetooth, et al.) which do not require a specific license but are regulated through requirements related to their design and operation, e.g., power output. Twenty years ago, when mobile networks were just getting off the ground and most of the Internet was carried over copper wires, obtaining a spectrum license was effectively a simple administrative process. Now that demand for wireless spectrum has significantly increased, spectrum licenses have become valuable assets often sold at auction for millions (and even billions) of dollars.
In the world of spectrum management, there are three key terms: allocation, assignment, and use. Allocation refers to the designated use of a particular band of spectrum, typically as determined through the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) but ultimately decided upon by national governments. These allocations are the product of years of negotiation and consensus-building through the ITU.
Most countries publish their chosen national spectrum allocations. Unfortunately, such information doesn’t tell you much more than the designated purpose of a given spectrum band. It doesn’t tell you who has the right to use it i.e. who has a license in that frequency or whether that frequency is actually in use. It can also look somewhat impenetrable to the casual observer with lots of acronyms that are not self-explanatory. What we really want is information on who has been assigned a given frequency, i.e. given a license to operate in a given band and on what terms that license has been granted. A few national regulators publish this information on their websites, most do not. In Africa, Nigeria stands out for their diligence in publishing spectrum assignments. Kenya and South Africa are also relatively good. However, not only do most national regulators not publish this information but some will also refuse a public request for this information. Once again we have a case of observable good practice like Nigeria that simply requires normalisation across the region.
Why is public access to information on spectrum assignments important? Because often there are opportunities to better take advantage of existing spectrum. You may have read about how a Mexican non-profit is using low-cost GSM technologies to deliver affordable access in the state of Oaxaca. The Mexican regulator has set aside a small amount of GSM spectrum specifically for the purpose of enabling rural access. This is an inspiring model that deserves to be replicated elsewhere. But without information on spectrum assignments, it is challenging to understand where those opportunities are.
Comprehensive public information on spectrum assignments would be a great leap forward but we can go even further and identify whether spectrum is actually in use i.e. not just whether an organisation has received permission to utilise a given frequency band but whether they are indeed using it.
Public access to information on mobile tower locations is also essential. Why? Because in terms of understanding who has network coverage we currently rely on mobile network operator coverage maps. Mobile network operators do not have the best incentives to be completely rigorous in publication of their network maps. As it becomes more strategically important to connect every citizen, it becomes equally essential to understand exactly who does and who does not have network coverage. The simplest way to validate network coverage claims is to know where the towers are, which operators are on them and what technology (i.e. 2G, 3G, LTE) they are using on that tower.
A common push-back to this suggestion is that publishing tower information would compromise the security of the networks. In fact, towers locations are already reasonably well-known. First, they are easily visible to the naked eye and thus not hard to locate. Second, many if not most of them can be identified through online services like OpenCellID or through Mozilla’s Location Service. These two resources are brilliant but a limitation of their crowd-sourced approach is that they depend on someone (who has their software installed on their phone) being near a tower in order to detect it. To date this approach has been successful in picking a large percentage of the towers in many countries. However, the more remote towers where populations are sparser tend to not get picked up. And it is exactly in these more remote areas that operators are least incentivised to cover, that we want to know more about coverage. Thus having public tower location information would be extremely valuable from the point of view of mapping the unserved and in terms of identifying opportunities for new business models to offer coverage.
And like fibre maps and spectrum charts, good practice already exists with regard to tower information. The Canadian regulator publishes a downloadable, Comma Separated Value (CSV) file with the location of every tower in Canada together with information about the operator(s) on the tower as well as the type of equipment, power output, antenna orientation, etc. This is all you could want to build a comprehensive map of towers across Canada and indeed someone has done so. Steven Nikkel has imported that information into an online map that provides a brilliant picture of mobile infrastructure in Canada. This is enormously handy information for the average citizen trying to choose a service provider in any region outside of a major urban centre where coverage varies significantly between operators. There is no reason not to do this sort of mapping everywhere. We just need to explode a few myths and change the norms around publishing tower data.
And it is not just the Canadian government that has seen the value of publishing tower data. In India, veteran operator Airtel have published a new website entitled Open Network in which they map all of their towers for both 2G and 4G networks, as well as identifying where towers are being upgraded and where they are needed. The website goes by the slogan “Because you have a lot to say. And we have nothing to hide”. This is strong evidence to illustrate how transparency, far from being a liability, can actually be a powerful tool for marketing. This is the first instance of a commercial operator publishing tower locations.
Backhaul Pricing
Demand for broadband is increasing non-linearly in Africa, with the result that backhaul networks are fast becoming the critical bottleneck in affordable access. As we have seen, there is a lot of fibre across Africa but the cost of terrestrial links is often so high as to make operator expansion impractical. This is not a problem if you happen to own the fibre (as many incumbent operators do) but it can be a significant obstacle for new operators. This is not a simple challenge to address but one small thing we can do is introduce more transparency in terrestrial network backhaul pricing. The cost per Mbps varies dramatically across the region. Regulators may simply be unaware of how their country stacks up in terms of national backhaul pricing. The same may be true within countries. A little transparency would go a long way. This is not to suggest to operators that they reveal their business agreements but a basic rate card that would establish a ceiling for costs. In fact, a single data point such as the price of an STM-1 (155Mbps) link across 250km would provide critical insight into the competitiveness of the market.
And again, good practice exists already. The regulator in Botswana (BOCRA) publishes a public rate card for access to the national fibre optic backbone. Granted this is a state-owned network which removes the complication of negotiating with the private sector but even if we just succeeded with state-owned networks, this would be a big leap forward. The practice of publishing backhaul and interconnection pricing is more common in West Africa thanks to a directive in 2006 from UEMOA, the West African regional economic community.
Affordable access to communication is now of such value as a social and economic enabler that it is no longer appropriate to talk about strategies that connect “most” of the population. We need strategies that can embrace all levels of society and all regions. Fortunately, market and technological trends have created new possibilities for the development of affordable access solutions. But in order to have a meaningful conversation about those options, we need better data on current telecommunications network development. Governments across the world have seen the potential of Open Data to increase both transparency and innovation in specific sectors and to better meet the needs of their citizens. Open Data policies contribute to more efficient and accountable governance, and facilitate the enjoyment of human rights. Telecommunications has been overlooked as a sector to which Open Data policies might be applied. This not a question of massive change for either regulators or operators but more a case of socialising and normalising the good examples that already exist for making telecom data public; whether fibre, spectrum, towers, or pricing.
However any change at all must counteract the inertia of the status quo. What is needed is a coalition of civil society and research organisations to come up with a simple, convincing campaign to get policy makers, regulators, and operators to see the value of this. Also needed is an initial set of data standards, descriptors, and tools that can help early adopters get started in sharing their data.
If you are interested in being part of a movement for more transparency in the telecom sector through Open Data policies and practice, please join the discussion forum at Open Telecom Data.

I am grateful to Carlos Rey-Moreno, Deborah Brown, and Mike Jensen for feedback that significantly improved an earlier draft and to IDRC for supporting this work.