Why you can’t have 4G in South Africa

Vodacom recently demonstrated the next step in Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology, LTE Advanced (or “4G”), achieving speeds of between 150 and 320 Megabits per second (Mbps).

The mobile operator also announced that its entire radio access network is now 4G-capable.

Despite this, and the fact that a few new smartphones support LTE-Advanced, South Africans should not get too excited about experiencing the fast speeds 4G technology can offer.

This is because a significant amount of frequency spectrum is required to deliver the kind of speeds Vodacom demonstrated.

While Cell C, MTN, and Vodacom all have spectrum that they currently operate mobile networks on, the operators have all indicated that they will need additional bandwidth to offer the full benefits of technology like LTE-Advanced to subscribers.

Telkom is a bit of an exception as it has spectrum in the 2.3GHz band which it used to roll out an LTE network, using the time-division duplex version of the technology.

However, its network is built as a fixed, wireless alternative to ADSL, and not specifically for mobile use.

To give you an idea of the amount of spectrum needed to achieve the speeds that Vodacom demonstrated: Icasa provided the operator with 40 Megahertz (MHz) of test spectrum in the 2.6GHz band, in two 20MHz chunks.

That’s more than a quarter (28.6%) of the spectrum available in that band for the type of LTE technology mobile networks such as Vodacom and MTN are rolling out (namely: frequency-division duplex).

For the sake of comparison: Telkom uses 60MHz of spectrum in the 2.3GHz band for its time-division duplex LTE network to offer maximum speeds of 100Mbps.

Spectrum stand-still

LTE Spectrum Assignment Plan
Icasa’s previous LTE Spectrum Assignment Plan, with each bar representing 5MHz. Since this plan was proposed, Sentech has returned its spectrum, which means it can be assigned to someone who will actually use it.

Of course we should keep in mind that Vodacom and MTN aren’t pleading for more spectrum because of their benevolent nature.

They are ultimately for-profit companies, and there has been quite a bit of noise from the government suggesting that it wants to use the next round of spectrum licensing to introduce more competition in the wireless broadband space.

This may seem like an admirable goal, but the bottom-line is that South Africa has been waiting at least 5 years for the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) to assign high-demand spectrum.

Icasa, in turn, has been waiting on the Ministry of Communications (and now the Ministry of Telecommunications and Postal Services) to issue a policy and/or policy direction on spectrum.

Based on information received from within the industry, Icasa doesn’t actually have to wait on the Ministry, but any move by the regulator to assign the spectrum is blocked at a political level.

Every time it looks as though there is progress, a new obstacle is introduced to hold back the spectrum from being released.

There’s always a reason, sometimes even a good one, but the excuses may have cost South Africa dearly in wasted opportunity and are now wearing thin.

The spectrum is just sitting there, mostly unused and absolutely useless to South Africa but for the promise of one day maybe giving newcomers a crack at Vodacom and MTN (and Telkom and Cell C).

Except that there’s no substance to this promise.

Who will compete? How many mobile operators can the South African market even sustain? Most importantly: when will this fabled competition surface and what good will it be by the time it finally arrives?

If the capitalist nature of South Africa’s mobile operators is a concern, Icasa can place provisos on its spectrum licences to try and ensure that operators play well with others (and one another).

It’s time to cut the losses caused by this wasted opportunity and just release the spectrum.

Crucial broadband spectrum in SA: wait some more

Will LTE spectrum be wasted?

Telkom Mobile 100Mbps LTE tested: one word, impressed

MTN LTE now on pre-paid

LTE and 3G spectrum: “the way it really is”

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Why you can’t have 4G in South Africa