If the government wants to provide rural South Africa with great mobile network coverage, it needs to release spectrum to operators. This is according to Vodacom CTO Andries Delport.
He said Vodacom currently has 95% population coverage in rural areas where users can achieve download speeds of at least 1Mbps.
When it comes to its LTE network, only 44% of the population in rural South Africa has coverage. In urban areas, the figure is 91%.
The challenge mobile networks face in South Africa is that over 61% of residents live on 1.4% of its land. This means around 39% of people live across the rest of the 98.6%.
In places with the lowest population density, there may be as few as 4 people per square kilometre.
In urban areas, Vodacom was able to refarm 2G and 3G network capacity to roll out LTE, but it can’t do that in rural areas.
Even in urban areas like Mamelodi, refarming is challenging as there are too many subscribers who still rely on Vodacom’s 2G network for connectivity.
Despite the spectrum challenge, Vodacom won’t rest on its laurels. Delport said they will roll out more 3G coverage on 900MHz spectrum.
Vodacom usually rolls out 3G coverage on its 2,100MHz spectrum, and when it deployed 3G technology in 2004 it received additional spectrum to do so.
However, it is unaffordable to roll out 3G across the whole of South Africa on 2,100MHz spectrum.
Delport said the higher the frequency of the spectrum, the poorer it propagates. In other words, the smaller the cell a single tower can create.
Lower-frequency spectrum, including 900MHz, and the spectrum locked behind the digital TV migration process is more suitable to covering areas with low population densities.
Delport said the problem is not that Vodacom doesn’t have the towers in rural areas to roll out LTE – Vodacom has almost 5,000 towers in rural areas – but that it does not have the appropriate spectrum.