Vodacom unveils South Africa’s first LTE service, but uncertainty about spectrum abounds

South African mobile market leader Vodacom finally launched the country’s first LTE network last month, putting an end to a long period of speculation and putting South Africa back in the league of African technology pioneers.

The launch came at a time when industry commentators and operators themselves seemed to have come to believe that LTE belonged to a distant and uncertain future in the country. LTE in South Africa has been awaiting the outcome of regulatory processes that even close observers have struggled to understand. ICASA has postponed its 2.6GHz-spectrum auction a few times and has not released an updated schedule. The digital migration is on course, but delays in the process might challenge the ITU’s 2015 deadline for all countries to migrate all TV platforms to digital. In the meantime, operators have started trials mostly in the 1800MHz band. ISP iBurst seemed to be in pole position, holding frequencies in suitable bands (1800MHz and 2.6GHz), and had said it would launch in 2012. IBurst’s launch was first scheduled for 1Q12 and then postponed to 2H12. IiBurst has not yet unveiled its LTE services.

Eventually, and against all odds, Vodacom became the first operator in South Africa to launch LTE, overturning its own initial downbeat assessment of the prospects for LTE in the country. As recently as end-2011, then-Vodacom CEO Peter Uys said publicly that LTE was unlikely to happen in South Africa in 2012. It took a new CEO, Shameel Joosub, and noises from MTN about its own plans to launch LTE in 2012 to spark some action from Vodacom.

Marketing exercise and patchy coverage
I’m happy about the opportunity to at last comment on actual LTE networks in South Africa, rather than on potential launch dates. But I fear that we are still experiencing marketing exercises, which, if not backed by strong network performances, will leave us with a lukewarm impression.

On the other hand, the lack of spectrum – decried by operators, including Vodacom – is still a problem. This could for the time being limit network-expansion plans and leave us with the patchy coverage experienced on 3G networks. In any case, LTE launches in Africa so far have more to do with improving network performance in some business hubs than promoting broadband for all. In the case of Vodacom SA, the service is limited in terms of coverage but also in terms of usage, since it is available only to Vodacom postpaid customers.
Vodacom’s LTE network is running on 1800MHz frequencies and is accessible via 70 enabled base stations, or less than one per cent of Vodacom’s base stations. The operator plans to have 500 enabled base stations by end-2012. There is no extra charge to use LTE. Vodacom intends to benefit from its Vodafone affiliation and promote as many devices as possible. Six devices are available now, including one handset, the Nokia Lumia 820.

Vodacom bucks 4G branding trend
Besides the launch itself, the branding of the service also came as a surprise. When, almost everywhere in the world, operators have associated their LTE brands with 4G, Vodacom has decided to drop the 4G label and stick to “LTE.” This is a courageous move, with, according to Informa Telecoms & Media data, 86 per cent of the more than 90 LTE networks in operation being branded 4G. It is also a cautious move, since the ITU recognizes only LTE Advanced as 4G. But there is an industry consensus to brand early LTE versions as “4G,” while the advanced versions would be branded “True 4G.” This consensus is endorsed by the same ITU. If the standard-setter itself sends mixed signals, it is probably better to simply use the name of the technology. Avoiding the “4G” label could also become a safety option, should complaints about poor network performance arise.

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