Vodacom is unable to expand its 4G/LTE network in rural areas because it simply does not have the spectrum it needs to do so at an affordable cost.
Group chief technology officer Andries Delport said at a press conference in Sandton on Tuesday that Vodacom’s coverage in rural areas has reached 44% of the population.
This could be driven much higher, in a short space of time, if the company had access to the “digital dividend”, spectrum below 900MHz, Delport said. However, this spectrum continues to be used for analogue television broadcasts because of the years-long delays in South Africa’s digital television migration project.
Delport said Vodacom has about 4 700 base stations in rural areas providing 95% of the population in these areas with speeds in excess of 1Mbit/s. But about a million South Africans live in areas where speeds are sub-1Mbit/s.
“4G coverage in metro areas is around 91% of population, but it’s only 44% 4G population coverage in rural areas,” he said. “When do we run out of spectrum? We have run out of spectrum. If you look at the 44% rural coverage on 4G and the reason we cannot expand it, it’s because we don’t have spectrum.”
Delport said that if Vodacom had access to the 800MHz band, it would “in a space of months” be able to dramatically expand 4G coverage in rural areas.
To deliver faster Internet speeds in rural areas, Vodacom — and rival MTN — have been actively rolling out 3G using the 900MHz band (originally used exclusively for 2G voice). The band is better suited to building sites with large coverage areas, making it more affordable in rural areas where the network has to be less dense.
Delport estimated that to provide broadband to the million South Africans who don’t have 1Mbit/s or faster access will require building between 1 500 and 3 000 new sites. “These are very low-density areas. At R1.8m per base station (excluding transmission and other costs), it can become quite expensive.”
He said operators need to co-operate better to solve the challenge, but must work within the constraints of South Africa’s competition legislation. Government’s planned wholesale open-access network could also play a role. “We have to be smarter about how we cover rural areas.”
The spectrum constraints are also affecting Vodacom’s ability to launch the latest 4G technologies based on LTE-Advanced technology.
“We have launched LTE-A services, but it’s very constrained, in places like the Gautrain stations,” said Vodacom executive head for innovation head Jannie van Zyl. “Out in the open, because of spectrum limitations, we can’t do that, but the network is ready.” — (c) 2017 NewsCentral Media