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Cohesive effort is needed if LTE is to be embraced by Africa (and stand out from 3G)

July 14, 2013  »  MobileNo Comment

Mobile broadband is still very scarce in Africa. Governments are hesitant to allocate spectrum, operators are wary of deployment hurdles (upfront costs and long-term revenue per user), and consumers usually cannot afford LTE devices. Plus awareness of the benefits of LTE over 3G is low. Even if these challenges are overcome, the truth is most Africans do not need LTE to send emails, interact on social networks, and communicate via aps. So, why talk extensively on 4G LTE when 3G will still do the job for the mass African market for years to come?

We believe that people in Africa, whether as individuals, in households, in SMEs or in big corporates, want and deserve high quality, reliable and fast broadband access.” – Irene Charnley, CEO of Smile Communications

Let the mobile broadband flow, Africa needs to catch up with the rest of the world. Do not go for lengthy spectrum allocation processes.” – Ernest Ndukwe, chairperson of Openmedia Group and former CEO of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC)

Many mobile operators are embracing LTE for their African markets because it is the clear “technology that will define their future business offerings to subscribers.” Last week, mobile operators and LTE equipment vendors met in South Africa to discuss the future of LTE. And boy did they discuss LTE!

To summarize, few Africans use LTE. Infrastructure is in place and ready for operation in many countries. Smile Communications (in Uganda and Tanzania) utilizes the right model (see above). MTC Namibia took a risk launching LTE. 800 MHz is key for rural areas. In Ghana, Surfline Communications will target areas with high revenue opportunities. Safaricom publicly claims to be content with 3G. Power supply remains a challenge as greater data usage requires more energy. Plan pricing needs to be easier for consumers to understand if 4G and 3G are to differentiate. Governments should see more revenue potential in quick and targeted allocation of spectrum instead of lengthy auctions. Offering new mobile operators LTE spectrum can be a step to strengthen competition and ensure quality of service.

Full highlights from the two days of LTE Africa 2013 presentations (sorted somewhat chronologically):

  • Operators are starting to award LTE licenses to new mobile operators (and sometimes punish current mobile operators for bad voice service by holding back a LTE license)
  • 94% of LTE subscribers in Africa are in South Africa
  • 300,000 LTE users in Africa (<1% of African mobile subscribers)
  • Africa represented 4% of global mobile broadband statistics in 2012 and will rise to 6% this year
  • Huawei equipment is commonly used for LTE – the company has 44 LTE networks across Africa but many are dormant until operators are ready. 25 of them are in Eastern and Southern Africa
  • Smile (with presence in Uganda and Tanzania and soon DR Congo) has no legacy, shares infrastructure, and integrates systems from inception, resulting in quicker operations
  • Vodacom: majority of LTE early adopters in South Africa use iPhone
  • 800 MHz for rural areas in Namibia, South Africa
  • Mobile broadband growth rate in Africa is 82% – Huawei
  • MTC Namibia launched LTE after seeing heavy 3G usage, sees 4G as an extension of 3G, 45% of the population is covered by 4G, 33% of the data on the network is from LTE, took 10 months for LTE traffic to reach what took 4 years for 3G
  • Operators who are early to LTE can boost revenue share by 50% in 5 years – Alcatel-Lucent
  • Parts of Ghana (high potential residential areas and SMEs) is to get 4G LTE in early 2014
  • Backhaul issues must be addressed (security, cell sites, management, weather)
  • ICASA is big on mobile competition that must be reflected by spectrum
  • Fixed line connectivity still performs better than wireless but isn’t always available
  • Samsung is committed to adapting to LTE in Africa
  • The availability of LTE enabled handsets will be a factor limiting adoption although the rate of new LTE devices becoming available is exceeding that of new 3G devices, but price remains an issue
  • Power supply cannot just be doubled to boost LTE networks
  • Safaricom’s data priority is still 3G (one-third of 9 million data customers use 3G)
  • Mxit users are 64-76% higher ARPU since they are more mobile active
  • Having four or five mobile operators is good, but having clear pricing information for consumers is better as 4G, 3G and 2G are available
  • VoLTE can be lucrative to combat the decline in 3G subscribers once LTE picks up steam. VoLTE can be accessible through feature phones
  • Rolling out mobile broadband (ie. spectrum) to everyone at affordable prices will generate more revenue than if governments are to hold multi-round spectrum auctions
  • Operators should invest in quick roll-out of LTE networks, keep deployment costs as low as possible, share infrastructure, and create awareness of the benefits of broadband access

Based on the outcome of the event, it appears unlikely all but the largest African economies will be able to formulate a cohesive LTE strategy. After all, it takes a dedicated government, astute regulator, enthusiastic mobile operator, and base of early adopting consumers. Still, the discussion at LTE Africa 2013 should trickle down over time as all stakeholders realize the benefits of LTE. In an ideal Africa, LTE would be deployed everywhere within years, thus leapfrogging older mobile technologies. For now, most areas of Africa should look forward to the still-very-useful 3G.

Sources: Twitter (#LTEAfrica) and HumanIPO