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Fast internet network coming for underserved areas | Business

The Spectrum Management Authority, SMA, this week announced plans to sell new spectrum for US$24 million to deliver high-speed internet to remote communities.

The selected candidate will be given a decade to pay for the spectrum in instalments.

“We are happy that we can connect these unconnected spaces,” said SMA Managing Director Dr Maria Myers in an interview with the Financial Gleaner.

The move seeks to improve the service to over 200 underserved communities across the 14 parishes of Jamaica. It would improve mobile internet for these mostly small communities including the 134 residents in Merrywook in St Elizabeth or the 1,070 residents in Skibo, Portland, and others, according to the SMA tender document issued Wednesday.

It will also give the chosen telecoms a newly repurposed spectrum in the 600 megahertz band, previously held for broadcasting services.

Spectrum allows for wireless communication on certain assigned frequencies that entities such as radio stations and telecoms utilise to deliver their services to consumers.

Other entities utilising spectrum include the security forces, the aviation sector, satellites that drift over the country, among others.

The allocation of spectrum for terrestrial and outerspace purposes is managed by the SMA, which is an agency of the Ministry of Science, Energy, Telecommunications and Transport.

For the current sale of terrestrial spectrum, bidders need to submit a business plan. They also need to hold a telecoms licence from the Office of Utilities Regulation as a prerequisite. Bids are due by June 12 and the winner of the bid will be announced that same month.

“The project is to deploy a mobile communication network with the aim to provide to the public mobile broadband services over a period of 15 years,” SMA said in the tender document.

A year after the granting of the spectrum, the winning telecoms is expected to ensure high-speed internet coverage of over 50 per cent of the population within “communities classified as underserved” by SMA, and 95 per cent coverage in two years.

None of the two largest telecoms, Digicel Jamaica and Flow Jamaica, responded to requests for comment on whether they would be going after the new spectrum.

Mobile operators already have spectrum but will eventually need more with the shift towards more intensive data usage.

“In Jamaica, mobile broadband services are also expected to grow significantly because mobile users on legacy networks will migrate to 4G/LTE and 5G networks. Hence network traffic will increase significantly, in turn increasing the demand for spectrum,” SMA said.

Hamilton, however, downplayed the move towards rapid 5G networks at this time, indicating that it is still an emergent technology. The Government is “service agnostic”, she said, adding that the telecoms would have to decide on their technology choice to reach the desired goal for internet penetration. Therefore, it would be incorrect to describe the project as the sale of a 5G spectrum licence, she added.

The additional spectrum allocation is meant to support Jamaica’s national development plan, known as ‘Vision 2030 Jamaica’, one of the objectives of which is to expand broadband networks nationwide. After conducting an extensive industry consultation in 2022, the SMA repurposed the 614MHz band to 698MHz, which it dubbed collectively in the tender as the 600MHz band.

The selected bidder will be required to make a deposit of US$8 million and commit an irrevocable letter of undertaking to pay another US$16 million in 10 equal annual instalments.

An unnamed legacy media broadcaster previously held the 600MHz band, but agreed to cede it for another band after consultation.

“They agreed for the greater good,” said Hamilton.

The SMA targeted that band to allow for stronger penetration to remote areas while offering better signal strength in old building staircases, and other areas that signals are difficult to reach.

As for fifth-generation technology, earlier in May, Director General of the Office of Utilities Regulation, Ansord Hewitt, called on telecommunication providers to consider the most efficient strategies to unleash 5G in the market to put Jamaica at the forefront of technology. He made that call at the SMA’s inaugural Caribbean Spectrum Management Conference in Montego Bay.

In its purest form, 5G technology can match the speed of fixed-line broadband on mobile devices and enable activity such as autonomous driving cars.

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