MTN SA is stepping up its investment in network infrastructure, promising to double the number of third-generation (3G) mobile base stations across the country in the next two years to 6 000 and extending wireless broadband access deep into underserved parts of the country.
To do this, the company is “refarming” (reallocating) a portion of the spectrum it has access to in the 900MHz radio frequency band for 3G services, says chief technology officer Lambo Kanagaratnam.
Until now, SA’s operators have concentrated their efforts in building 3G networks in the big metropolitan areas and in mid-sized to large towns.
MTN plans to extend 900MHz 3G services to about 1 000 base stations in the next 12 months, with 150 in service by the end of 2011.
Within two years, it wants to cover between 80% and 85% of the SA population with its 3G network.
The 900MHz band is well suited to building wireless broadband networks in rural areas because it offers wider coverage around base stations than higher frequencies like 2,1GHz that are used to offer similar services in the denser urban areas.
Kanagaratnam says MTN plans to roll out 3G in rural areas and smaller towns across Limpopo, Mpumalanga, the Free State, the Western Cape and the Eastern Cape. They’ll offer evolved high-speed packet access (21Mbit/s and higher) services in areas where the backhaul supports it. Rural areas will mainly use microwave for transmission, as it’s too expensive to build fibre networks to outlying parts of the country, he says.
At the same time, Kanagaratnam says MTN is continuing to experiment with next-generation long-term evolution (LTE) technology in Gauteng, and is also piloting the technology in Cape Town at the AfricaCom conference this week.
But he says it’s unlikely MTN will launch LTE commercially until it is able to secure access to radio frequency spectrum in the 800MHz and 2,6GHz bands. Access to this spectrum was meant to be auctioned off earlier this year, but it now appears unlikely it will be made available before the first or second quarter of 2012 at the earliest.
“The key thing is you don’t want to affect the existing customer base,” Kanagaratnam says. “We’ll be a lot more confident we can keep this network going [if we have access to more spectrum]. Things can change, but we want to understand how practical it is to run LTE at 1 800MHz.”
Rival Vodacom has said it is ready to launch an LTE network but is also waiting for access to more spectrum and for LTE-compliant modems and phones to become more generally available to consumers. — Duncan McLeod, TechCentral
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