ICT Africa Writer
April 8, 2013
LTE or Long Term Evolution is a revolutionary mobile technology that will significantly change mobile Internet download speeds. That said, it is imperative that the Internet user is well informed about the real capabilities and limitations of LTE so that high expectations will not give way to frustration. Some from Africa will remember very well the Wi-Max hype in which operators overpromised what they were not able to deliver.
LTE will definitely provide the potential for high-speed data over mobile networks never before possible with other mobile technologies, such as High Speed Packet Access (HSPA). LTE will enable access to a rich suite of multimedia services not possible with current technologies. In a continent where computers are very limited and handheld devices are the main media centres to access music, images, games, video and many other emerging applications, LTE becomes a very appropriate technology for Africa.
It is no wonder then that some African operators are ahead of their European counterparts in rolling out LTE. Mobile operators in Angola, Mauritius, Namibia, Tanzania and South Africa have so far deployed commercial LTE services in major cities. Many other operators in Africa, including Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Zimbabwe have at least announced plans to rollout LTE networks in their countries.
It is important to understand the requirements for a successful rollout and implementation of an LTE network and some of the limitations of the technology before we get into a euphoric state about the prospects of LTE. Some issues worthy discussing include regulation, supporting infrastructure, limitation of the technology and the cost of accessing the services.
African governments, who are expected to be custodians of programmes to accelerate Africa’s development through emerging technologies such as ICTs, are oftentimes accused as the main impediment to development. For LTE rollout to be a reality in Africa, African governments have to release the LTE frequency spectrum to operators that need to use it. Yet many government departments responsible for ICT seem to lack the sense of urgency of operators and consumers to get the technology rolled out and enable services that will support the development of our continent. It may take several years for some African regulators to understand the benefits of LTE and many more years for them to finally release the spectrum to operators.
If you experience congestion because too many subscribers share very few cells or poor quality of service due to unreliable backhaul and backbone networks – LTE will not be a quick fix. LTE requires higher transmission speed in the mobile backhaul and in the national backbone. So if your 2G or 3G services are not working well because your operator does not have the right backhaul and backbone infrastructure, the situation will worsen if they attempt to deploy LTE under the same conditions.
We warned in past articles that the 100Mb/s LTE speed oftentimes promoted in marketing collateral is the maximum throughput that one can get if no one else is accessing the same cell and that conditions, including proximity to the tower, are optimal. Actual speeds could be low double digits. Moreover, mobile networks, by nature are more prone to latency can easily be disrupted by environmental conditions so that one gets better user experience with a 10Mb/s xDSL connection than with a 10Mb/s mobile connection.
Finally, we discussed the cost of transmitting data in Africa mobile
networks. The cost of transmitting data over mobile networks is very high the world over but that cost is significantly higher in Africa. In South Africa a data plan for 3 GB can cost you about $20 a month. After migrating to LTE, your speed will improve significantly from say 3Mb/s to 12Mb/s, for example, but your data cap will likely remain the same. This means that the quality of your Internet connection and your user experience will go up the roof but you will be chewing through your 3GB bandwidth much faster. While you can now watch a high definition movie on your mobile device, a two hour movie can chew through all your data allowance.
For LTE deployments to be a reality and to make sense, governments should stop holding the industry hostage by releasing the much needed spectrum, operators should ensure adequate infrastructure and the cost of bandwidth should go down.