First African LTE network reveals unexpected usage

Nigerian operator Globacom surprised many recently with its announcement that it had launched Africa’s first LTE network. Among the surprised parties was Informa Telecoms & Media, because just three months ago we reviewed potential deployments of LTE in Africa and forecasted that the first LTE network on the continent beyond South Africa would not go live until 2012. That was because suitable spectrum was yet to be issued and also because compatible devices were yet to become available on the continent.

The situation regarding spectrum and devices remains the same now in January – hence the surprise at Globacom’s LTE-launch announcement. The surprise was even greater when the Nigerian operator confirmed it still did not have LTE-preferred spectrum (700MHz or 2.6GHz) and nor did it have LTE devices to sell. In fact, according to Globacom, Africa’s first live LTE network will initially be available to corporate users for wireless backhaul. The project is run in partnership with US supplier Ceragon Networks with whom Globacom signed an agreement in 3Q10 for the provision of high-capacity 4G/LTE-ready wireless backhaul solutions.

Although Glo’s announcement still raises a lot of questions among industry observers and players across Africa, it could pave the way for new market opportunities for LTE besides mobile broadband connectivity for the end-user. At the same time, Globacom’s announcement could also spark an LTE race on the continent, pushing big players, especially in South Africa, to accelerate their deployments.

Spectrum remains however a key element. According to equipment providers, the frequency bands most suitable for deploying LTE are 700MHz and 2.6GHz. The 700MHz band is recommended for wide and rural areas, and 2.6GHz is said to deliver better speed and be more effective in urban areas. But such spectrum bands are hardly in use by telecoms companies in Africa. The 700MHz band is used by broadcast services, but all African countries have committed to the global digital switchover, which will result in the 700MHz band’s being vacated by broadcast services. The process is only starting – and slowly – across the continent, the most advanced markets being Ghana and some Southern African states. South African authorities announced this January that they will complete the digital switchover in 2013. Earlier, in December, Burkina Faso set 2015 as their switchover completion date. In most cases, the migration is unlikely to be completed before 2014.

The 2.6GHz band has been widely used by national armies. The few telecoms companies licensed in such bands are usually ISPs that have held the spectrum for sometimes over a decade. The spectrum band started gaining interest when WIMAX became popular. Authorities in various African countries are now pushing dormant license-holders to vacate the band for auctions because of the rise in popularity of LTE. However, the regulatory strategy is sometimes unclear, which causes delays in spectrum auctioning. Last July, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) announced it was suspending the bid for 2.6GHz and 3.5GHz spectrum following concerns expressed by market players about the licensing process. The deadline was initially set to June 30 and then postponed to July 30. ICASA stated that it will revise the licence terms and conditions. One of the rationales behind the decision was technology evolution. While the frequencies to be auctioned were in the past favoured for WiMAX deployment, there has been an increased interest in LTE. ICASA sated it will “embark on a consultation process with the intent of providing a more desirable configuration of the band, which best serves the interest of the public”. ICASA is yet to publish a new schedule.

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