SA to wait for LTE networks
Cape Town - Despite moves to increase wireless network speeds and capacity by mobile operators, South Africans should not expect high-speed mobile broadband anytime soon.
MTN announced that users on its uncapped services would get an increase of download speed from February 1, to a maximum of 384kbps.
That, however, is a long way from speeds above 10mbps up to 150mbps that some companies are trialling internationally.
"We're rolling out where we can, but we haven't made a decision to go live. There're a couple of challenges: Ecosystem-wise, the LTE devices are still young, I mean it's a new technology, even though it's the most rapidly deployed one," Kanagaratnam Lambotharan chief technology officer of MTN South Africa told News24.
Spectrum is a critical issue for operators and MTN has called on the authorities to make the spectrum available.
"The second thing is spectrum and that's really a challenge for us. We've re-farmed some spectrum but we can't do it everywhere and it would be a bit irresponsible to go out and do something without getting that spectrum because it can affect quality and capacity on your existing network," Lambotharan said.
The issues of spectrum was also highlighted by the GSMA which oversees the development of mobile services around the world.
The organisation said that in Africa, in particular, more should be done to deliver mobile services.
"In order to do that regulators and governments have to make spectrum available. In addition, regulators and governments need to overcome the temptation to levy mobile-specific taxes," Peter Lyons GSMA director for spectrum policy in Africa and the Middle East told News24.
Vodacom is also testing LTE and lamented the lack of spectrum allocation.
"We've been swapping radio equipment across the network to make sure we’re ready to go live as soon as we get access to sufficient spectrum," said Tshepo Ramodibe, Vodacom's acting chief of corporate affairs.
Newcomer 8ta built six base stations in 2011 to test LTE, but cautioned that it was early days for the technology.
"Making too bold and too earlier a move [into LTE] and you could find your fingers burnt," said 8ta head Amith Maharaj.
Even once spectrum has been allocated, operators have to ensure that there is sufficient capacity that connects the base stations so that there is no backlog of data.
"The higher speeds that you get, you obviously have to put fibre into your base station because you cannot backhaul that over a longer term," said Lambotharan.
He said though, that a large percentage of MTN users did not use the network to surf the internet, despite the fact that data will make up an increasing share of the network's revenue.
"If you look at statistics, there's a huge amount of our base that don't use the internet. How do you make it relevant so that every part of your customer base uses the internet. So it's not about providing data; it's about providing relevant applications and service."
Vodacom hinted that it was racing to link all its base stations with fibre. This would give the firm an advantage once the spectrum has been allocated.
"We're also making good progress on expanding our transmission capacity and connecting more base stations with fibre," said Ramodibe.
At the recent Consumer Electronics Show is Las Vegas, several manufacturers launched 4G devices for the American market, but Lambotharan said that there was still a long way to go before the technology was proven.
"In a lot of cases it's purely a data network. In America, they're rolling out a lot of devices and smartphones. The challenge is that voice is not seamlessly available. You actually have to fall back to the 3G network to make a call.
"It's cool and it's something we're definitely looking at."
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