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African nations face longer wait for commercial LTE rollout

Rebecca Wanjiku | Sept. 2, 2013
Angola and South Africa are the only two African countries to allow LTE deployment for commercial services.

Regulatory challenges, lack of spectrum, insufficient content and slow return on investment for 3G rollout have stalled LTE (Long-term Evolution) technology rollout in most African countries.

Regulators have blamed scarcity of spectrum for their lethargy in giving permissions or licenses for operators to commence tests and subsequent commercial services. Angola and South Africa are the only countries to allow LTE deployment for commercial services. 4G can deliver in excess of 50Mbps compared to 3G technology, which has typical speeds of 2-3Mbps.

"We have been piloting LTE technology with five sites in Kenya, our technology remains robust and we will be ready to transition to 4G when the time comes, this remains a factor of availability of spectrum which lies with the regulator," said Nzioka Waita, corporate affairs director at Safaricom, in an email interview.

Digital television migration has been cited as an opportunity to avail the much needed spectrum for other uses. South Africa and Angola lead in digital television migration, which frees up the spectrum for other trials. Kenya has set a December deadline for digital TV migration. There is no policy whether 4G should be on the 2.6Ghz or the GSM band.

Safaricom has been having discussions with the Communications Commission of Kenya regarding 4G commercial availability but a recent ruling that CCK must reimburse $15 million in overpaid 3G frequency fees has strained the relationship between the regulator and Safaricom. In 2007, Safaricom paid $25 million for its license and three years later, CCK reduced the fees to $10 million to allow Airtel and Orange to get their licenses. Safaricom protested and filed a dispute, which resulted in the $15 million reimbursement.

The high license fees and low uptake of data services have been blamed for the slow pace in moving from 3G to 4G. Currently, South African operators lead in the number of 3G sites: Vodacom has the most sites at over 5,000, MTN has over 4,000 and Cell C has 1,900. In Kenya, Safaricom has 1,500 sites while Orange has 500 3G sites.

"The ROI case at this time is not well defined. By and large, in Africa, LTE networks are being deployed for marketing purposes rather than to satisfy a real need for higher download speeds. Mobile operators could continue to keep satisfying the current and future demand over the next couple of years with 3G networks, in order to realize a ROI on that infrastructure," said Dobek Pater, senior telecoms analyst at Africa Analysis, in an interview.

Lack of demand for bandwidth-hungry services such as live streaming of video and gaming content has meant that operators have not made a business case for why consumers should pay more for LTE when their content can be delivered well with 2G or 3G technology.


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