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Several African countries ahead of Europe in the race to LTE

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Several African operators have beaten a host of European countries including UK, France and Italy in the race to LTE by launching commercial LTE services in the past two months. Leading the way were Movicel of Angola and MTC of Namibia, the first operators in Africa to deploy LTE helped along by proactive regulators, engaged governments and booming economies. Next was Mauritius’ second-largest mobile operator Emtel, which launched its commercial LTE service at the end of May, closely followed by Smile Communications in Tanzania, which launched its commercial LTE service at the start of June.

Informa Telecoms & Media forecasts nearly 350,000 LTE subscriptions in Africa by end-2012, a figure that is expected to increase to around 40 million by end-2017, driven by further LTE launches across the continent. South Africa is set to see its first LTE service by the end of this year, and LTE launches are expected in Nigeria in 2013 and in Egypt by 2014.

“Cellular network traffic in Africa is expected to increase by at least nine times by 2016, according to Informa Telecoms & Media. Rapid rollouts of 3G networks have helped operators cope with growing demands on the network capacities, but, going forward, the scale of the problem is such that the operators need to find further efficiencies in spectrum usage. LTE brings these efficiencies by conserving radio spectrum – and it vastly improves user experience,” comments Kalyan Medapati, Senior Analyst at Informa.

Proactive regulators, engaged government and booming economies helped Angola and Namibia in fast-tracking their LTE launches, with competitive pressure adding to the dynamics in Angola. The IMF forecasts the GDP growth in Angola and Namibia at nine per cent and four per cent, respectively, in 2012. And the strong economic growth had created boom towns in Luanda and Windhoek – the initial LTE services are targeting these two cities.

Regulatory clarity and government engagement makes or breaks the pace of growth in Africa’s telecom markets. In Namibia’s case, the prime minister’s office was actively pushing for modernization of the country’s telecom network. The regulator’s swift spectrum usage approvals and Windhoek City’s prompt clearance for laying high-capacity fibers to link LTE cells has helped expedite the commercial rollout of LTE.

“The launches in Angola and Namibia also came as a surprise on the continent itself as the focus was, as usual, on South Africa where all operators are now conducting LTE trials. However, delays in licensing relevant spectrum have held up launches there. At present, only the ISP iBurst has confirmed an LTE launch by end-2012 and it does not exclude sharing its infrastructure. iBurst holds frequencies in the 2.6GHz plan but admits that the regulator may re-allocate some of it when it auctions the spectrum,” said Thecla Mbongue, Senior Analyst at Informa.

Handset availability is one of the major reasons hindering a widespread deployment of LTE networks globally. LTE handsets comprise 18 per cent of the total LTE devices available in the market. There are around 15 different varieties of LTE devices compared with more than 2,000 WCDMA-based 3G device models in the markets across the world. Thankfully, the Chinese vendors, ZTE and Huawei, offered end-to-end support for Movicel and MTC’s LTE ambitions, including a limited range of low-cost LTE devices.

However, Kalyan adds that, if all the hype around early LTE launches in Angola and Namibia is stripped away, the initiatives seem to be designed more to aid Movicel and MTC’s marketing than to genuinely forge technology leadership. The LTE coverage in Angola and Namibia are very much limited to a few cities, oil-rich Cabinda and Luanda in Angola and the capital city Windhoek in Namibia. This will leave large swathes of these countries still on 3G or, in some cases, on 2G.

There will be limited interest in LTE launches in next few years, even in the major African markets like South Africa and Nigeria. Operators will still be mostly preoccupied with optimizing their recently-deployed HSPA networks.


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