Vodacom plans to expand its network into an additional 150 deep-rural communities this year to push toward 100% population coverage in South Africa.
Andries Delport, CTO at Vodacom, said rolling out LTE coverage to rural areas is financially and technically challenging.
As mobile operators do not have the wireless capacity they need, in the form of radio frequency spectrum, cost-effectively providing rural areas with 2G and LTE coverage is difficult.
Vodacom has refarmed spectrum in the 1,800MHz band to roll out LTE elsewhere in SA, while 3G has typically been rolled out on its 2,100MHz spectrum.
These bands – 1,800 and 2,100 – are not well suited to covering low-density population areas. Higher-frequency spectrum creates small cells with relatively-poor indoor penetration and is typically used in areas of high population density.
For this reason, Vodacom will start rolling out 3G on its 900MHz spectrum, which has typically been used for 2G voice and data services.
To roll out LTE, network operators need spectrum in the 800MHz band, which will hopefully be released when South Africa’s digital TV migration is completed.
Vodacom also plans to continue investing in its network, and has been upgrading its existing sites to roll out LTE.
Upgrading existing towers instead of building new towers speeds up deployments and reduces the cost of a roll-out.
“A new site in an urban area can easily cost you between R1.5 million to R1.8 million,” said Delport.
He said Vodacom has also been trying to refarm 20MHz of spectrum (10MHz download, 10MHz upload) in its 1,800MHz band – relatively little in terms of what the LTE specification allows.
This upgrade strategy works because Vodacom has already achieved 99.9% urban and 99.6% rural population voice coverage, and 99.9% urban and 95.6% rural population data coverage.
However, of the rural population data coverage, only 44% is 4G-enabled.
Delport said this is due to many subscribers still relying on its 2G network – preventing it from refarming more spectrum.
A solution to capacity challenges being developed for standards like LTE is Licence Assisted Access (LAA), the successor to LTE-Unlicensed.
Delport said the reality is that in the short-to-medium-term, technology like LAA will not make a big impact in South Africa
Only a few high-end devices will support it, and the restrictions on power output for unlicensed radios is much more stringent than for licensed spectrum.
Another big challenge is the quality of the Wi-Fi networks required, said Delport.
“The moment you use a network not in your own environment, you lose control over quality.”