South Africa's LTE race is far from over as nationwide 4G remains years away

South Africa’s first commercial LTE service became available in parts of Johannesburg last week, but for most of the country, there's still a long wait for 4G coverage.
Written by Lance Harris, Contributor

South Africa's Vodacom has taken the lead in the country's race to roll-out LTE with the launch of the country's first commercial service earlier this month. However, the triumph is one of marketing rather than technology - with national availability of commercial LTE services still at least two to three years away.

The launch puts Vodafone subsidiary Vodacom ahead of rivals MTN and Cell C, who have yet to launch their own commerical LTE offerings, which are promised to go live before the end of the year. 8ta — the country's fourth and newest mobile operator — will launch an LTE trial on 1 November, with commercial services to follow in 2013.

The commercial launch of the service appears calculated to claim a marketing first: while Vodacom plans to roll out LTE at 500 of its 9,000 base stations by the end of the year, the service is initially accessible via only around 70 Vodacom base stations in Johannesburg.

The Vodacom announcement comes just weeks after MTN disclosed plans to launch a commercial LTE service across around 500 base stations in Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Durban before the end of the year.

LTE obstacles

Despite the apparent rush to market, operators admit that high capex costs, a shortage of devices and a lack of frequency spectrum are constraining the wider rollout of LTE in South Africa. For the most part, the first LTE services will cover major cities well served by fixed-line broadband services rather than the more under-serviced parts of the country.

The biggest obstacle to LTE is that the regulator has dithered for years about the process of allocating much-coveted spectrum in the 2.6HGz band to network operators. Delays in migration to digital television also mean that operators will need to wait until at least 2015 to get their hands on the 800MHz 'digital dividend' spectrum.

South Africa's mobile networks will all dabble in LTE, but a national LTE network is at least two to three years away, said Cell C chief commercial officer Jose Dos Santos, speaking at a conference hosted by South African broadband news and advocacy site MyBroadband recently.

Access to spectrum, the high costs of connecting base stations with fibre backhaul links, and the dearth of LTE devices in the market all pose major challenges for the networks, he added. Despite these obstacles, Cell C will have "something exciting to announce" about LTE before the end of the year.

More spectrum needed

Vodacom demonstrated high-definition video playback on a 60Mbps LTE link at the conference, which was hosted at the company's headquarters in Midrand, near Johannesburg. For now, Vodacom is refarming and optimising existing spectrum to provide LTE services, but it could roll LTE out more widely if it had access to additional spectrum, Vodacom CEO Shameel Joosub said at the conference.

Durban, one of the South African cities soon to get 4G. Image: Shutterstock

Cell C's Dos Santos urged policymakers and the regulator not to auction off the spectrum that mobile operators need to provide LTE services on a large scale, but to consider enabling a wholesale network model to drive capital and input costs down for the industry. "We should learn from our mistakes in the 3G rollout," he said.

Cell C proposes that the operators work together in a consortium to build an open-access network spanning rural and urban South Africa that will sell LTE services at regulated wholesale prices. Vodacom is also open to this model and has already had some exploratory discussions with the other networks and government about the implications, says Joosub.  

8ta, the mobile arm of fixed-line incumbent Telkom, has plentiful frequency in the 2.3GHz band, which it is using to deploy a service based on a Chinese-developed version of the LTE standard called TD-LTE. The trial will be available in Pretoria and Johannesburg and the first phase of the commercial launch will include Cape Town and Durban.

8ta is initially positioning its LTE service as an alternative to fixed-line broadband rather than as a smartphone-centric offering – a move that will bring it into competition with its parent company's fixed-line broadband services in the metropolitan areas.

Elsewhere in Aftrica, 4G is gaining some traction: operators in Namibia, Angola and Tanzania launched small-scale commercial LTE services earlier this year while launches are expected in Nigeria in 2013 and in Egypt by 2014. Market researcher Informa Telecoms & Media forecasts nearly 350,000 LTE subscriptions in Africa by the end of 2012, a number it expects to grow to around 40 million by the close of 2017.

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