100% mobile data coverage in South Africa is impossible – Vodacom CEO

Vodacom CEO Shameel Joosub has outlined the difficulty in providing high-speed mobile broadband coverage across the entire population of South Africa.

Speaking in an interview with MyBroadband, Joosub said that 100% coverage was always difficult, as there will always be one small group of people living outside of the range of even the most rural base stations.

This is important to consider following the recent publication of ICASA’s information memorandum for the licensing of 4G and 5G spectrum in South Africa.

This document outline’s ICASA’s plan for the allocation of spectrum to mobile operators to further the development of 4G technology as well to enable the launch of 5G locally.

One lot of spectrum will be reserved for a national wireless open-access network (WOAN), and the remainder will be auctioned to private industry.

ICASA also wants to impose certain obligations on mobile operators who bid for new spectrum.

These include the following requirements:

  • Data services must have an average upload speed of 15Mbps and the “downlink user experience” must have a throughput of at least 30Mbps to 100% of the population of South Africa by 2025.
  • Bidders must first roll out broadband networks to 97% of the population in all identified underserviced areas before they will be allowed to roll out to urban areas.

Logistical impossibility

Joosub said that reaching 100% population coverage goal for these speeds is impossible.

“I don’t think you can ever achieve 100% in any country,” he said. “You always purposefully put it a little bit less than 100%.”

Vodacom has exceptional 2G, 3G, and 4G coverage in South Africa, with the latter reaching 92.4% according to the company’s interim results for the six months ended 30 September 2019.

This figure is logistically impossible to improve to over 99%, however, as it would be financially prohibitive to erect base stations in far-flung rural areas where only a handful of people live without basic amenities.

This can be seen by the “99% coverage” figures quoted by major mobile operators worldwide, which are generally accepted as complete coverage figures.

ICASA’s proposed obligation for mobile operators to deliver an average download and upload speed of 30Mbps and 15Mbps to 100% of the population is therefore logistically impossible, but Joosub said that it showed the right principle.

“I think the principle is captured, which is that rural coverage should be focused on,” Joosub said. “I think the principle is captured that you want to make sure it’s not an inferior speed in the rural areas.”

“And, therefore, I think there is also an opportunity for the WOAN to play a bigger role – it would also be something that we would be interested in – in helping operators build that coverage in rural areas. That could be meaningful.”

WOAN perspective

Joosub said that Vodacom was generally positive about the information memorandum, although it would add comments to help refine the regulatory perspective on certain issues.

“Generally, we are positive on it, but there are certain elements that need to be commented on further, and some things that need to be considered,” Joosub said.

“I’m not sure, for example, why the WOAN would want to roam on us. As another, should the MVNOs be on us or should they be on the WOAN?”

“The WOAN needs more customers, so if MVNOs become our customers, who are the WOAN going to sell to? Those are the types of nuances that I think still need to be unpacked more,” he said.

Now read: Why Rain 5G has slower upload speeds than download speeds

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100% mobile data coverage in South Africa is impossible – Vodacom CEO