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LTE in Africa – call it like it is

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Long Term Evolution (LTE) has moved from concept stage to actual rollout, globally, and in Africa. It does exist. It is an advancement on previous wireless technology standards including GSM/EDGE, HSDPA and HSDPA+, and has been developed and rolled out to consumers to enhance network speeds and throughput on communication.

LTE technology on a roll in Africa. (Image: File)

But discussion about LTE also includes reference to LTE-advanced/ 4G, which is not entirely available as yet. It is a differentiation that consumers need to understand in order to evaluate whether or not what they are receiving is exactly what they ought to be. The issue of spectrum or the ranges of broadcast radio communication signals used by networks to broadcast, and usually managed by telecoms and broadcast regulation authorities, also warrants consideration.

LTE is acknowledged to be an evolutionary technology and latest standard within the development of global wireless mobile broadband communication.

A report posted on the official International Telecommunications Union (ITU) website, entitled ITU/BDT Arab Regional Workshop on ‘4G Wireless Systems’ – Tunisia, 2010, details what it terms ‘LTE performance requirements’. These requirements cover data rates, cell range and cell capacity.

In terms of data rate, the criteria stipulated is “instantaneous downlink peak data rate of 100Mbit per second in a 20MHz downlink spectrum (i.e. 5bits per second, per Hz) and instantaneous uplink peak data rate of 50Mbit per second in a 20MHz uplink spectrum (i.e. 2.5 bit per second per Hz)”

From a cell range point of view, the conditions stipulated in the report state 5km as an optimal size, 30km sizes with reasonable performance and up to 100km cell sizes supported with acceptable performances.

Regarding capacity, the report indicates “up to 200 active users per cell (5MHz) or the equivalent of 200 active data clients.

In its definition of the generations of mobile technologies, the ITU applies 4G to LTE-advanced and WirelessMAN-advanced.

A press release posted on the site explains: “Following a detailed evaluation against stringent technical and operational criteria, ITU has determined that “LTE-Advanced” and “WirelessMAN-Advanced” should be accorded the official designation of IMT-Advanced. As the most advanced technologies currently defined for global wireless mobile broadband communications, IMT-Advanced is considered as “4G”, although it is recognized that this term, while undefined, may also be applied to the forerunners of these technologies, LTE and WiMax, and to other evolved 3G technologies providing a substantial level of improvement in performance and capabilities with respect to the initial third generation systems now deployed. The detailed specifications of the IMT-Advanced technologies will be provided in a new ITU-R Recommendation expected in early 2012.”

Mobile network operators across Africa have claimed to have rolled out LTE and 4G on their networks. In South Africa, operators like Vodacom, MTN, 8ta and Cell C have announced their readiness to move subscribers closer to LTE.

Vodacom was the first to announce that they have officially made the service available to local customers.

In Kenya LTE connectivity is expected to serve as replacement technology for regions throughout the country. Authorities have made public efforts to establish national coverage before next year and have all counties connected.

There have also been a number of announcements about LTE trials in countries like DRC, Ghana and Zambia.

However, analysts agree that there could be confusion amongst some consumers as to what constitutes LTE and how this differs from LTE Advanced or 4G – and in particular, within developing markets like Africa, the question begs: is LTE that operators claim to have rolled out, actually LTE? and does 4G actually exist? or is this merely a marketing ploy to attract consumers?

Arthur Goldstuck, CEO of World Wide Worx, adds perspective by stating that the debate centres on whether or not these operators have rolled out 4G or not – because not all forms of LTE are officially 4G.

“The ITU is in fact open-minded about LTE being called 4G if it represents a step change in speed, but their formal definition requires tight adherence to a narrow set of specs,” says Goldstuck.

Mark Taylor, CEO at Nashua Mobile, says there are a couple of things that need to be put in place in order to make LTE work.

“The most important one starts with the handset. Can the handset upload and download at the speed required to perform the LTE at the expected level? Do the networks have the spectrum to deliver this versus when the networks are re-farming spectrum? Is it going to have an impact on voice and data services to existing customers? Do we have the transmission in place to support he volume of data that LTE allows you to do in accordance with the true definition of LTE?  If we do not have a fibre optic link, end-to-end, I don’t believe you can deliver the speeds at level required. So we have to make sure that we finish the infrastructure upgrades first to carry the data at the speeds required,” he says.

Taylor says the scenario with LTE is no different from previous industry transitions, such as the move from Edge to HSDPA, for example, and demands the same considerations before widespread adoption and application can take place.

“Can my PC support an LTE modem? You are going to need LTE-enabled handsets. How many are there in the market? How prevalent are they? How long will it take before we have a wide enough volume of customers can actually use it? The people who get onto LTE first, have the backhaul and are located in an area of fibre end-to-end, where the networks are self-provided and there are a few users, and who will not be impacted from the re-farming of spectrum. They will have an amazing service. But go to certain areas and see how many people can really use the data because of concurrent users.”

Asked if by promoting this service and claiming rollout before the infrastructure criteria is fully in place, the industry could setting a false expectation? Taylor says no.

He is adamant the industry is 100% correct to advertise and promote product and this is part of the evolution of the telecoms industry.

“They are raising expectations, yes, but not falsely. If they explain exactly where the base stations will be situated and where you will get coverage and you know that is where you will get coverage, it is absolutely right. It is the next step in the evolution of telecoms,” he explains.

Gary Williams, Head of Pre-Sales Engineering at Metrofibre networx, confirms the benefits of higher speed, lower latency and practical advantages in transferring data, bandwidth is contended to and from the base station… and the data rate speed will depend on the amount of other subscribers connected to that same cell site.

The MEF, as the defining body for Carrier Ethernet, is a global industry alliance comprising more than 200 organizations including telecommunications service providers, cable MSOs, network equipment/software manufacturers, semiconductors vendors and testing organizations.

Williams lists a number of considerations to additional LTE rollout in Africa, including a formalisation of the national broadband policy to free up the much-needed spectrum 800Mhz and 2.6Ghz ranges, cellular operators having to bolster their LTE network capacity and better utilise existing spectrum resources, as well as improved interconnection and cooperation between cellular operators, carriers and Network providers.

Amith Maharaj, 8ta South Africa Senior Managing Executive, says, “LTE as a technology is a reality. Whether everyone has rolled out and has it commercially available, depends on what you as a consumer or you as a business deem commercial rollout. So is it 50 sites that warrant it to be a network out there or 200 or 300? But it is here – three of the networks in the country already have LTE sites up. As the definition goes, the true sense of 4G will come with LTE advanced, a progressive step, the technology there is not fully mature yet, but you can look at minimum of 100 Mbps being that qualifier. So, yes, 4G is not here today, but it is an incremental jump and not a big leap.”

However, in order for Africa to take the ‘big leap’, the issue of management of spectrum has to be sorted out.

“Regulators define and allocate the spectrum. Usually the spectrum is managed by the telecoms and broadcast regulation authorities. In some cases both segment are separated and there are two separate regulatory bodies. Depending on the countries, the regulators can either have the last say and issue the spectrum or they may have their decision approved by the ministry in charge of the telecommunications,” says Thecla Mbongue, Senior analyst for Informa Telecoms & Media in South Africa.

Mbongue says that whilst reference to 4G alongside LTE can be confusing to consumers who do not know about the technology, the fact is that LTE has been rolled out in Africa as advertised by specific companies within specific regions.

“It is the case, in a sense that what is need is LTE network infrastructure on the operator’s side and LTE enabled devices, on the subscriber’s side. There is no ITU definition as a far as LTE is concerned, since it is a technology. ITU however has defined the generations of mobile technologies. LTE-advanced is part of 4G based on the download speed, which the subscriber is meant to experience. In most cases the speed (100 Mb per second) cannot be reached for various reasons,”

Mbongue suggests that service providers do have a role to play in helping to roll this technology out.

“Because they are the one owning the networks, I’d rather say that they are the ones who need to help in order to deploy the technology efficiently. They need help from authorities in terms of spectrum allocation, but also in terms of cost of spectrum, which should not be auctioned at ridiculously high prices so that operators concentrate their investments in deploying and optimising their networks. At the same time, there should not be pressure on them to deploy LTE just everywhere, but in strategic and profitable areas. 3G is yet to cover most of the continent and in most case 3G can still address the basic Internet needs of ordinary citizen.”

Whilst users across the continent still need to orientate themselves in terms of the real advantages LTE promises, an air of expectation and anticipation prevails – and the ball is now effectively in Africa’s court.

Chris Tredger, Online Editor

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