Reichelt's broadband plan could help Cell C leapfrog rivals - TechCentral

Reichelt’s broadband plan could help Cell C leapfrog rivals

Lars Reichelt

Lars Reichelt

Cell C is planning to build a broadband wireless network so advanced that, to date, only about 20 operators worldwide have deployed the technology commercially.

The operator, SA’s smallest with about 8m customers, has long been criticised for not having a 3G wireless network to offer its customers high-speed Internet access. This has meant it has had to chase lower-spending pre-paid subscribers, resulting in lower average revenue per user for the company.

Now, however, Cell C’s shareholders — Saudi Oger and black-owned CellSaf — have together agreed to stump up R5bn so that the company can spend next year building a network based on an advanced 3G technology known as evolved high-speed packet access, or HSPA+.

Think of HSPA+ as 3G on steroids.

If Cell C gets it right, it could shake off its status as SA’s cellular minnow and become the network of choice for high-end users demanding access to the latest and greatest technologies — the consumers who tend to spend more each month on their communications and who are therefore more profitable for operators.

Its bigger rivals, Vodacom and MTN, have built their networks on similar but older high-speed packet access technology. Their 3G networks top out at theoretical download speeds of 7,2Mbit/s — with both said to be planning software upgrades that will take them to 14,4Mbit/s in 2010.

Cell C’s HSPA+ technology will offer consumers speeds of up to 21Mbit/s, says CEO Lars Reichelt. HSPA+ is capable of theoretical speeds of up to 56Mbit/s.

Future versions of the technology will take that up to mind-blowing 168Mbit/s. To put that in perspective, that’s more than 40 times the maximum speed available on Telkom’s fixed-line broadband service.

One of the big challenges for Cell C will be ensuring it can provide high-capacity backhaul links to its base stations to cater for these sorts of speeds. Relying on Telkom to provide these links is problematic because the fixed-line provider is not always responsive to other operators’ needs, Reichelt says.

To remedy this, Cell C plans to deploy fibre to some of its base stations. It hopes to work with partners to do this, rather than trench the streets itself.

It will also build microwave backhaul links where it can get access to the frequency it needs. Gaining access to microwave frequency is a high priority for the company, says Reichelt, but he is concerned that industry regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa), could prove to be a stumbling block in this regard.

Another challenge for Cell C will be the lack of handsets in the market, particularly of handsets capable of taking advantage of the promised 21Mbit/s download speeds. Devices will become available over time, but their unavailability initially could slow adoption.

Also, its plans could prompt Vodacom and MTN — and newcomer to mobile, Telkom — to accelerate their plans to move to faster 3G technologies, and even to the next-generation networks based on Long-Term Evolution.

Nevertheless, Cell C’s deployment of HSPA+ will put SA among the leading wireless broadband markets worldwide. Fewer than two dozen operators have built networks using the technology. The first to go live was Australia’s Telstra, in December 2008.

Cell C must still choose its technology partner for its HSPA+ network. Reichelt says the company is in the process of studying bids from suppliers.

The operator plans to use all of its radio access frequencies to offer HSPA+ services. This means it could be the first mobile provider in SA to build a 3G network at 900MHz — Vodacom and MTN have built theirs at 2,1GHz.

The lower frequency means Cell C can cover larger areas with fewer towers. This could prove useful in more outlying areas. The company also plans to mix and match its 1,8GHz and 2,1GHz spectrum as it rolls out the network.  – Duncan McLeod, TechCentral

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  1. Good to hear. Hope this will also stir the market up big time so that we get higher speeds, bigger caps and lower tariffs.

  2. No mention is made in the article about the Telkom WCDMA implementation and how it compares speed wise with CellC’s HSPA+. I’ve also heard yesterday that Telkom offers now a fully operational cellular voice and data solution. Any news on that?

  3. Ichtys, Telkom is testing a W-CDMA network running at 7,2Mbit/s. It’s using the same technology as Vodacom and MTN, and so presumably can upgrade to 14,4Mbit/s in 2010. Telkom is expected to launch its W-CDMA offering commercially in 2010.

  4. Matthew French on

    The theoretical speed is very nice, but is it practical if we can only reach that speed while standing outside with one hand in the air? The speed of 3G should be fast enough for most tasks, but there are many areas where Cell C’s EDGE network is faster than the competing 3G networks.

    It is difficult to determine whether this is because of too much wireless traffic, inadequate backhaul links, or because of the base station’s location. But I think it is fair to assume that the only way we will get the theoretical performance with any consistency is if there is a base station on every corner.

    Now does Cell C really want to open that can of worms? Or will we have yet another wireless data network that is broadband in theory but dial-up in practice?

  5. Dear Mr Editor, thanks for your reply. However, the testing phase has long been over. I’ve heard that there are currently more than 5000 customers subscribed to the W-CDMA service. Anyone can walk into any Telkom shop now and order/purchase the W-CDMA Huawei connection, sim card and equipment. It’s just not widely advertised as such. Heard of Telkom’s product called “Do 3G”? Thats W-CDMA in disguise. Interesting as well to hear that all copper cable thefts are not being replaced any more. The services to the Telkom customer are being replaced by a W-CDMA connection to the nearest Telkom cellular tower. Gratis! My colleague’s dad stays in Kameeldrift west, he can testify to that. It looks like things are changing quite fast at Telkom and all for the better.

  6. Well Ichtys the reason they only have 5000 customers is because they don’t have prepaid yet. There’s a few hiccups with the system and they don’t have the needed basestations yet for a full launch without it falling over the same way Vodacom’s is doing now. I’ve learnt from others’ mistakes and won’t sign a contract with anyone even a month to month one.

    Matthew, the theoretical speed is what the technology is expected to be capable of and not what you will get with perfect signal. Normal HSDPA was expected to reach 21.6Mbit/s but has apparently topped out at 14.4Mbit/s on software updates alone. Just as nobody needed better reception to use the 7.2Mbit/s HSDPA upgrade nobody will need it to use the new speeds. As long as they have the network to handle the speeds you will either have good enough reception to use it or not at all.

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