Internet Solutions plans to use its extensive Wi-Fi footprint in South Africa to support faster 4G, and eventually 5G, networks.
“To make 5G really work in this country, you need triple the [current mobile] coverage or more,” said IS CEO Saki Missaikos.
The same is true for 4G networks, as local mobile operators will not be able to fully unlock the potential of the technology using the limited amount of spectrum they have access to, he said.
LTE-U and spectrum
To achieve the near-gigabit speeds that LTE-A supports requires using carrier aggregation – which involves three or more carriers which are each 20MHz wide.
In South Africa, operators are often lucky to have freed up a single 10MHz carrier for LTE services.
Compensating for the lack of spectrum being released by governments and regulators, LTE also supports unlicensed frequencies – such as those used by Wi-Fi.
The 3GPP standards body and Qualcomm have started pushing a new version of the technology called Licensed Assisted Access.
IS providing Wi-Fi carriers
This is where Internet Solutions’ network of Wi-Fi access points comes into play, particularly those from its VAST joint venture with Naspers.
Missaikos said their intention with VAST was always to build a wireless open access wholesale network.
“What we don’t want to happen is exactly what happened in the mobile industry.” There is a lot of infrastructure duplicated that could be more cost-effectively shared, he said.
Their plan was to put up access points and allow any player to participate on a share basis.
“We don’t believe Wi-Fi will replace licensed spectrum,” said Missaikos. However, it can complement mobile networks by offering Wi-Fi offload and additional wireless carriers.
Missaikos said all of their access points will be heterogenous soon – “hetnets” – supporting unlicensed Wi-Fi and licensed LTE services.
This will allow operators to extend their normal coverage over IS infrastructure, in addition to using the Wi-Fi carriers.
It will also help enable dynamic carrier switching down the line. Device manufacturers like Apple already have virtual SIM technology, and combined with carrier-agnostic radio equipment, this could allow subscribers to switch between mobile networks when needed.
“It will require a level of control on top of [the network],” said Missaikos.
ICASA’s support needed
For this shared system to work, Missaikos said they will need the support of ICASA, as spectrum sharing is not allowed in South Africa.
“We’re not naive to think operators will give up their spectrum and put it into a wholesale network, nor do we think that’s the best option.”
Internet Solutions believes a hybrid approach of individual commercial networks and wholesale open access is the best bet.
However, ICASA has to make sure that spectrum is shared evenly among everyone.
“The regulator needs to work with industry to get this right. You can’t just look at global models – at where specific ideas have worked or not worked,” he said.
He said ICASA has to get input from operators, wholesale providers, and service providers to develop the best model for SA.