WiMax 'offers hope' for Africa broadband

2011-11-15 22:35

Cape Town - African governments should explore alternative means of getting broadband to their citizens in the absence of affordable technology, an industry player has said.

"For a continent like Africa… broadband doesn't exist, fibre doesn't exist, backhaul doesn't exist and it's in the really early stages," Dr Mohammad Shakouri, vice president of Alvarion in the WiMax Forum told News24.

Several ideas are being punted to be the next standard in mobile broadband communications as there are huge profits for the companies that choose the right strategy.

Costs are a significant factor and Shakouri conceded that WiMax (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) has been losing the marketing battle.

"From the perspective of the actual activity, we see that market noises from the press and the big mobile operators are all about LTE [Long Term Evolution]."

Broadband infrastructure

He said that the LTE standard would take a long time to develop, and that it would not serve the need in Africa.

"The cellular industry has been starting to pump a lot of marketing activity regarding LTE and the reality is that LTE will take 5+ years to develop and commercialise, similar to the time it took the 3G technology to happen.

"My perspective, what we see as the real need for Africa, is not WiMax, LTE, or any of these technology buzzwords. You need to get affordable broadband into the countries," said Shakouri.

Most internet users in Africa use wireless networks to access the web as the cable broadband infrastructure is too far removed from end users, despite several fibre optic cables that encircle the continent.

Mobile operators have focused on data as the dominant revenue stream in the short term and key to ensuring this is the availability of spectrum to rollout wireless broadband infrastructure.

"One of the key things for broadband is the spectrum. The key question from our perspective is not what technology is best or what it does, it’s what is the spectrum that is available," Shakouri said.

The minimum broadband speed is defined as 256 kilobits per second (kbps) even though India has suggested this be increased to 512kbps.

Globally accepted

For wireless networks in developing countries, the speed is dependent on whether the spectrum is available.

Shakouri said that operators have to work within the realities of what was available, particularly in Africa.

"That kind of spectrum does not exist today in Africa for operators. Government regulations have not done it. From that point of view, I see the buzzword of LTE needs to tie to the reality of spectrum pulling networks together."

He acknowledged that LTE was the more globally accepted system, but said that it still faced challenges in universal access.

"For sure, technology like LTE will come to Africa, but the truth is that if you look today, the only real deployment of LTE is in the 700MHz in the United States; that's the real mass market.

"And even there, they have yet to make the business case to work."

Alvarion has 70 commercial deployments of its WiMax technology throughout Africa, but critics said that global standards would serve Africa's interests as the cost of manufacturing comes down.

'Leverage' technology

"In order to deliver these [wireless] services at price points that are affordable, and to be able to provide handsets to the market that are affordable, the road that has to be taken has to be the more travelled road - the internationally standardised and harmonised road," Paul Lyons GSMA director for spectrum policy in Africa and the Middle East told News24.

"For Africa, a continent with nearly one billion inhabitants, to gain additional economies of scale, it needs to harmonise with other regions of the world so when chipset manufacturers are making the chips that go into these devices, they can mass produce a huge volume of these chips, driving the price per chip down," he added.

Shakouri held the view that no single technology could immediately resolve the issue of mobile broadband in Africa.

"In order to be successful in Africa, you need to be able to leverage Wi-Fi technology, you will need to leverage WiMax technology, you will have to be able to leverage LTE technology."

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