The limited promise of 4G: What does the LTE switch-on mean for Africa?

The limited promise of 4G: What does the LTE switch-on mean for Africa?

Summary: South African telco MTN has launched LTE in Uganda. Will fourth-generation services really shake-up the mobile market there?

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TOPICS: Mobility, 4G
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In April, Uganda became the latest African country — and the first in East Africa — to roll-out a 4G network. Deployed by the Uganda arm of the South African telco MTN, the LTE network should deliver download speeds of up to 100Mbps, nearly three times faster than those previously available in the country.

There's no question that 4G networks, still not ubiquitous in many developed economies, will be a step forward for Uganda's mobile landscape. But analysts say the impact of 4G in the country depends on how far it becomes a business service.

The rollout in Uganda is part of a broader African trend of leapfrogging traditional fixed broadband by adopting current-generation mobile tech. Africa has long suffered from a lack of well-managed fixed line networks, and the cost of installing the necessary fixed infrastructure has left the field open to companies with innovative and comparatively cheap mobile alternatives.

The result has been a mobile revolution that swept the continent, and one which is continuing apace. A number of African countries have adopted 4G services within the last year, including Angola, Namibia and, most recently, Tanzania.

If you take MTN's press release at face value, the launch of LTE in Uganda "represents a major stride" in mobile connectivity that will "significantly transform the way [customers] interact with the world".

But Simon Lee, a Nairobi-based ICT analyst with the research firm Africa Analysis, is less convinced. "Other than a technology 'wow' factor, I'm struggling to understand what they're going to achieve," he says.

4G for business

According to Lee, LTE could really make a difference if pitched as an enterprise service, allowing solid-enough connectivity to make cloud services widely accessible. "If you could offer seamless datacentre services and cloud services across multiple platforms, now you're starting to talk about the real benefits of 4G, in that you can basically get everything everywhere. It means you're going to have a lot more flexibility," he says. "That would be massive."

Lee points out that an LTE network could still be useful for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), home offices and businesspeople. But, as has been the case with similar networks in other African countries, geographical coverage so far is extremely limited. In Uganda, the network only extends to certain parts of the capital, although MTN says there are plans to expand it.

At the moment, the most obvious market is consumers. Customers could use the faster speeds for video streaming and photo uploading, functionally that would appeal to younger consumers increasingly plugged in to social networks and the content creation.

But adoption rates among individuals will be largely determined by cost, Lee notes. MTN is offering 10GB of free data with the purchase of a $63 4G dongle, but connectivity in Uganda is still relatively expensive, and as long as it remains a pre-paid service the cost of up- or downloading large amounts of data – however speedy the process – will be prohibitive for most. Until prices fall, takeup is likely to be fairly limited.

The appeal of hardware

LTE_Dongle
Image: MTN

Nor is pricing the only challenge facing service operators trying to popularise expensive 4G networks in Africa. Clunky black dongles, Lee says, don't have the same value as a status symbol as a mobile device.

"If you're not getting the device people want to be seen with, then you're not going to sell it." He points to the iPhone 5, which, he says, appeals to consumers for different reasons than the developers might have expected. "[Consumers] are more interested in pulling out their nice handset than they are in using the technology."

Still, it may just be a question of time before 4G makes the sort of splash operators would like it to. Despite high costs and unstylish dongles, 3G networks revolutionised internet access when companies like Orange introduced them in Africa several years ago, prying users out of cramped cyber cafes and stealing a tremendous amount of business from fixed wireless operators.

Even a number of SMEs switched to mobile devices, Lee says, because the dongles simply offered a better service. The same could happen again, if the service proves useful for companies.

But, large corporations are likely to still need the reliability of fixed wireless broadband, and with more and more fibre-optic cable being laid on the continent, these services are likely to grow alongside networks such as 4G.

MTN itself is not neglecting its fibre networks, and the LTE launch comes on the heels of major investments by the company in data infrastructure. These include 2,800km of fibre backbone in Uganda, an additional 400km of fibre in the west of the country, five regional switching centers and 100 base stations to add new coverage areas.

They might lack that technological wow factor, but with businesses' current dependence on fast and dependable internet, and ongoing infrastructure investment on the continent, traditional fixed broadband connections on which the developed world has so long relied aren't likely to be going anywhere, even in Africa.

Topics: Mobility, 4G

Hilary Heuler

About Hilary Heuler

Hilary is an itinerant print and radio journalist who originally hails from Southern California. In recent years her travels have taken her to Europe, Asia and Africa, where she has reported on everything from techie innovations to antique riverboats. She is currently based in Kampala, Uganda, where she's busy swatting mosquitoes and keeping an eye on the ways technology can impact society.

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