By Forrest Wilhoit, Africa Broadband Coordinator
The Ebola crisis of 2014-2015 resulted in tragic loss of life across West Africa and caused massive global alarm. It also revealed the power of communications technology – and the significant problems that can result when communications networks fail during a crisis.
In Liberia’s national response to Ebola, the fragility of mobile voice and data networks became a serious impediment to emergency response and public health efforts. As the crisis deepened in that country, Mobile Network Operators and Internet Service Providers in particular experienced substantial losses in revenue, as many high-value customers scaled back or shut down completely. At the same time, operating costs, such as supplying petrol to mobile base stations, security personnel, equipment, and maintenance personnel, increased significantly. These losses led to a serious curtailment of critical communications services.
Identifying the current limitations
Following the Ebola crisis, a team of NetHope-led experts conducted a thorough review of the Liberian ICT sector. This process determined that, while improved digital infrastructure would provide important capabilities in mitigating future outbreaks, there were several important limitations that had prevented the development of that infrastructure in the past – and if left unaddressed, would likely continue to do so in the future.
Key among these limitations was the fact that the Liberian government lacked the technical ability to effectively monitor and manage the radio airwaves that carry mobile communications signals. This radio frequency (RF) spectrum is considered a national natural resource and is a critical element of all communications infrastructure. Wireless network operators are typically required to pay access fees (spectrum and regulatory) to national governments for the use of spectrum for the delivery of commercial communications services.
Without orderly and rational management of radio spectrum resources, interference often occurs and degrades the quality of service. This interference can come from a variety of sources – some accidental (such as faulty or illegally-operated radio equipment) and some purposeful (such as pirate radio or rogue operators). With no safeguards to limit such interference, wireless operators and investors are predictably wary of investing in network infrastructure. At the time of the Ebola crisis, the Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA) had none of the technical tools and equipment that are required to monitor spectrum and to ensure that radio channels were being used appropriately in accordance with legal assignments.
Developing a new system to bring order and stability
As part of a USAID-driven, post-Ebola ICT sector capacity-building effort, NetHope worked with LTA to develop specifications for a basic spectrum-monitoring system that would provide LTA with the means of bringing order to the airwaves and thereby providing stability to the wireless communications space.
In June 2017, a team from NetHope and an engineering team from Germany-based LS telcom, Inc., joined LTA staff in Monrovia to receive the four large wooden crates containing over 1000 kilograms of system hardware components. Over the course of two weeks, the team worked with LTA staff to assemble and install two remote measurement nodes: one at LTA headquarters and one at Roberts International Airport. In addition to these large, dome-shaped antenna units (pictured above), the team commissioned two suitcase/backpack-style portable units that can be used by LTA engineering staff to take field measurements on foot in specific areas where unwanted interference is identified.
This new system represents a quantum leap for the Liberian regulator and a unique opportunity to more effectively carry out its role as a steward of the public trust and as an industry advocate. LTA, USAID ,and NetHope’s efforts in Liberia demonstrate the power and potential of collaboration in the spectrum-management space and suggest that future efforts – in Liberia and elsewhere – may lead to improvements in regulation, management, and overall sector health.
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