Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology is the next step up from 3G. This all-IP network technology will give users three times the wireless throughput and increase network capacity considerably. It's much needed in South Africa as the uptake of bandwidth-hungry smart devices - smartphones, tablet PCs, etc - grows and the backhaul capabilities of the networks become increasingly stressed.
However, LTE technology is not compatible with 2G and 3G - it calls for a totally new technology installation and rollout. For new players, the first investment will be high, but in the long run the cost per Megabit per second (Mbps) will make this an attractive solution.
With every major network provider in South Africa trialling LTE technology and ICASA looking like it may soon finalise the spectrum allocation issue, 2012 may well be the year of LTE. But trialling LTE is not the same as rolling out an LTE network, or offering an LTE quality service. Without doubt it's the direction that every network provider needs to take, but there are challenges and considerations. An evolution rather than a revolution is on the cards.
The big challenge
The big challenge is to exchange the Telkom copper, currently used on the backhaul, with fibre. While there is now a lot of fibre rolled out, primarily by the big network players, smaller players are also rolling out fibre and presenting a new "open fibre" model. This model essentially opens up use of the fibre to any network provider with a need, for a fee, of course. The technology used by these smaller players is going to be an important influencer as network service providers will want to integrate easily to and across these networks.
Current trends are leaning toward the use of technology from vendors who represent the entire digital echo system in their product set. Samsung offers a good example with its end devices for consumers (smart phones and tablet PCs already equipped with LTE chip sets) as well as other carrier-grade equipment and solutions.
A significant investment
Of course, few networks will migrate completely to LTE in the near term. While this technology is per Mbps of capacity cheaper than the 3G technologies to install, it remains a significant investment. It is, after all, not a complementary network, but an additional one. Network providers will want to sweat their existing assets, most likely deploying LTE in metropolitan areas to service the large broadband demand there, and using current CDMA/WCDMA technologies for voice. In addition, older WiMAX technologies could be put to good use if redeployed to rural areas. Alternatively, the reuse of Wimax frequencies (3.5Ghz) on LTE can have very positive impact on the network, eliminating the need to pay additional frequency costs. In this way, the networks can evolve, introducing new technologies to users of smart devices with the quality and speed of service that they desire, but also targeting new users and introducing new services and products to them as infrastructure build-out and demand allow. They will also have the providers of open fibre and specialised telecoms services to rely on to close gaps.
Smaller, new and hybrid telecoms players now on the scene may well change the traditional playing field and offer strategic advantage to existing local and international players entering the South African market.
Bleaker for Africa
The picture is bleaker for Africa due to lack of high-capacity backbone infrastructure that the broadband solutions rely on. Countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia and Ghana are moving towards LTE technology with many other countries trialling LTE. But the LTE challenge for Africa is much higher. While the landing of the EASSY, WACCS and SEACOM undersea cables means that there is a huge amount more bandwidth capacity available to the continent, fibre reach to the shore, to access that bandwidth, is slow. In addition, budget to acquire and install LTE is limited. Nonetheless, there is a huge opportunity here, especially for green-fields players to launch with pure LTE offerings.
The big players in South Africa have the appetite to move to LTE - indeed are being driven to this new technology as their cells fill up and gaps are left in their RF coverage. For network providers, a hybrid technology strategy followed by the full launch of a LTE network is on the cards. My advice for consumers: ensure any new end devices you acquire are LTE ready, as LTE services are likely to be here by the second quarter of 2013.
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