Vodacom recently gave a demonstration of high-speed LTE-Advanced technology at its headquarters, achieving speeds of over 200Mbps.
The demo used the inter-carrier aggregation standards defined for LTE, combining two 10MHz carriers and a 15MHz carrier from different bands.
Nicholas Naidu, head of access network engineering at Vodacom, said the two 10MHz carriers were in their 900Mhz and 1,800MHz bands, while the 15MHz carrier was in the 2,100MHz band.
The test was conducted on Vodacom’s live network inside Vodacom World. However, not everyone could access Vodacom’s demo LTE-A network.
An obstacle was that even though inter-carrier aggregation across five bands is defined in the LTE standard, Naidu said the technology isn’t widely supported.
Samsung’s Galaxy S7 – used in the demo – is currently the most advanced smartphone in this regard, as it allows inter-carrier aggregation across up to three bands.
The real issue: lack of spectrum
Vodacom’s demo also highlighted the real issue operators in South Africa still face: a lack of spectrum.
Currently, Cell C, MTN, and Vodacom are rolling out LTE and LTE-Advanced technology by refarming spectrum. This means they shuffle their existing spectrum to free up 10MHz to 14MHz to use for LTE.
Telkom also has LTE-A services, but rolled it out in a chunk of its unused 2,300MHz spectrum.
One issue Telkom has is that the high-frequency spectrum it uses for LTE doesn’t propagate as well as MTN and Vodacom’s – which use refarmed 1,800MHz spectrum.
Cell C uses refarmed 2,100MHz spectrum.
Massive government failure
The fact that operators are scrounging around for spectrum is a testament to a massive failure on the part of the South African government.
Although the ANC government has got a number of things right since 1994, telecommunications is not one of them.
Government’s failure to hand out spectrum dates back to 2006, when ICASA kicked off a spectrum-assignment process.
ICASA issued and withdrew two invitations to apply (ITA), stating it was waiting for a policy direction from then Minister of Communications Dina Pule.
The policy and ITA never came. Dina Pule was replaced by Yunus Carrim, and a few months later the Ministry of Communications was split in two – the second being the Ministry of Telecommunications and Postal Services.
In the two years since President Jacob Zuma appointed Siyabonga Cwele as Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services, spectrum has only been talked about.
Most recently, ICASA published a memorandum for public comment in which it stated its intention to auction highly sought-after 4G spectrum. No date was set.
With access to more spectrum, network operators like Vodacom, MTN, Cell C, and Telkom could commit more bandwidth to LTE services.
This would translate into faster speeds. It would also mean capacity to provide services to more customers, which in time could translate to cheaper prices.
Sadly, the spectrum to do this lies nearly completely unused to this day, and no concrete plans to assign it have been forthcoming.