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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