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Telcos’ massive spend to fulfil LTE appetite

telecom 3JOHANNESBURG  – THE standstill on spectrum allocation is not deterring the country’s leading mobile network operators investing significantly in the rollout of long-term evolution (LTE) services.

LTE, commonly marketed as 4G LTE, is a standard for wireless communication of high-speed data for mobile devices and data terminals.

Vodacom, the country’s biggest operator, launched South Africa’s first commercial LTE services in 2012.

Officials disclosed the firm spent substantial capital rolling out its mobile network, with close to R10 billion invested in the last year alone.

“The result of this is that Vodacom, by far, is the leader with the most number of sites and the best mobile performance across South Africa,” said Maya Makanjee, Chief Officer: Corporate
Affairs at Vodacom.

Vodacom, which boasts some 33,7 million subscribers has over 10 000 active sites nationally and more than 5 000 of these are LTE enabled giving a population coverage of around 55 percent.

He said all major cities and most towns were covered and many rural areas are also enjoyed LTE coverage.

“Another year of aggressive investment and rollout will see these numbers grow significantly,” Makanjee said.

Rival operator, MTN, meanwhile said in 2015, it embarked on extensive network upgrades to optimise and capacitate its network across all technology streams including 2G, 3G and LTE.

Krishna Chetty, General Manager: Radio Planning and Optimisation, said the upgrades were funded by capital expenditure of R10 billion MTN announced in March 2015.

“For the first six months of the year, MTN rolled out more 3G and LTE sites than it deployed in the last six months,” said Chetty.

The majority of MTN LTE sites, which number more than 3 500, are Advanced LTE (LTE-A) ready.

Chetty disclosed MTN hoped to commercially deploy LTE-A in some areas in 2016.

“MTN SA has achieved downlink throughputs in excess of 140Mbps using LTE-A carrier aggregation, but actual performance when commercially deployed will depend on how much spectrum can be allocated to a second LTE carrier,” said Chetty.

MTN has some 28,5 million clients.

Cell C, with 22 million subscribers, disclosed it had earmarked over R8 billion to rollout LTE in the next “two to three” years.

The company is also actively testing LTE-A and reported it clocked download speeds of up to 138Mbps on a live LTE Advanced site during a demonstration in Cape Town in November 2015.

“Our LTE rollout has progressed exceptionally well. Cell C has launched LTE in various regions across the country, and moved forward its deployment of LTE in the Western Cape in 2015, well ahead of schedule,” Jose Dos Santos, Chief Executive Officer, told CAJ News Africa.

Cell C has more than 1 000 sites active in Gauteng, KwaZulu Natal and the Western Cape.

“We plan to double the number of LTE sites over the next 12 months and expand coverage to other regions in South Africa,” said Dos Santos.

The positive response to LTE-ready devices is driving the investments.

“ We’ve had a phenomenal response from customers on the quality of our LTE network. In addition, our aggressively priced LTE products and services saw customers queuing outside our buildings from 3am in the morning on each of the days we launched LTE in the various regions,” said Dos Santos.

Makanjee said the response of the public to the deployment of LTE had been “extremely good.”

With over 2 million active LTE devices/users on the network, LTE data usage now makes up a substantial part of the traffic seen on the Vodacom network, the executive said.

Makanjee pointed out all smartphones now came standard with LTE.

Faster download speeds coupled with higher performing smartphones were driving increased data usage on the LTE networks, he said.

“Previously a user might have watched a standard definition video on his phone. Now his phone will automatically play the HD version. The improved quality and fast responses when using services such as Facebook and youtube has led to an improvement in customer satisfaction,” said Makanjee.

Nonetheless, firms decried the lack of spectrum for next-generation wireless broadband services.

Chetty said it must be noted that the deployment of LTE-A required sufficient spectrum.

“Unfortunately MTN SA, like other operators in South Africa, is severely spectrum-constrained so has not been able to commercially deploy more than one LTE carrier thus far. MTN regularly monitors the feasibility of doing this spectrum re-farming in order to deploy LTE-A carrier aggregation,” Chetty said.

Makanjee shared similar sentiments.

“This lack of dedicated spectrum for LTE forced Vodacom to ‘re-farm’ its own 2G and 3G spectrum to use for LTE and this creates huge challenges as the network quality on 2G and 3G cannot be compromised. Only a small amount of spectrum can be ‘re-farmed’ and this then limits the performance of the LTE network,” Makanjee said.

As soon as spectrum is made available, the Vodacom LTE-Advanced network can be activated, “technically we are ready,” Makanjee said, subscribers will be able to enjoy download speeds of up to 100 mb/s.

Current average speed of 3,5Mbps is slower than many other nations’ average internet speeds.

While Independent and Communications Authority of South Africa and the firms are stalled over the allocation of spectrum, Telecommunications and Postal Services Minister, Siyabonga Cwele, said government intended finalising the policy on licensing access to this by the end of March.

CAJ News

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