We have run out of spectrum: Vodacom - TechCentral

We have run out of spectrum: Vodacom

Andries Delport

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.

‘Quite expensive’

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


  1. Um… I feel like calling bs… Surely rural areas have less people than cities, that being said that would mean less of the spectrum is being used in rural areas… What I think he meant to say is it’s not cost effective for Vodacom to supply rural areas with 4G.

  2. Actually, I am surprised they have not run out a long time ago.

    We have the useless ANC to thank for this.

    A string of absolute cretins for ministers dating back to the disaster that was Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri.

    With the only exception of Yunis Carim, they have all been absolute idiots. And they are 100% to blame for this, the digital migration disaster and the disaster that is Sentech.

  3. Can this be interrogated from a technical standpoint?

    1) Does spectrum licensing in rural areas cost the same as in cities, cost per connection is then a lot more expensive?
    2) Surely spectrum is spectrum and deployment of said spectrum can happen across the country within the defined tower cell bubble?
    3) I do not understand how a rural tower runs out of spectrum or is every geographical area’s spectrum unique to that footprint, meaning that the original spectrum allocation was inadequate to cover the whole country unless spectrum farming is performed?
    4) Rural areas have a lot less interference so the expectation would be that spectrum allocation is easier?
    5) Is spectrum allocation needed for back haul links where fibre is not available?

    Thank you,

  4. Ronald Bartels on

    The digital divide spectrum is required in rural areas as it has a greater coverage area per base station.

  5. 1. The mobile operators pay for national licences, not per region.
    2. Spectrum bands have different characteristics. The lower the frequency, the greater the distance and the better signals penetrate, so you can build fewer base stations to cover greater area.
    3. They don’t “run out of spectrum” at a tower — they never had enough of it in the first place. The operators do not have allocations in the lower, more suitable bands, other than their 900MHz allocations (which are currently being used for 2G and 3G — to provide LTE the operators would need to re-farm the 900MHz bands, except that rural populations often have older handsets that only have 2G or 3G (and in most countries gov and operators like to keep 2G as a fall-back service). So
    4. Interference is not really an issue – the operators have exclusive use of their spectrum assignments.
    5) Yes. Certainly. But that is not relevant to the article above.

    A key economic factor is that rural areas have very low population density — deep rural (100 inhabitants/sq km) is only 30,000 possible customers in a 10km radius; small town/per-urban is around 160,000 people in that area. Dense urban is 3,000-6,000 people per sq km, or 2-mill people (i.e. a LOT of active customers and hence revenues).

    So you want really big cells in rural areas (i.e. low frequency assignments for operators) to make them cost effective to deploy (either that, or there is a govt mandated cross-subsidastion of urban>rural to drive deployment into under-serviced areas).

    I’m generally leery of anything MNOs say, but in this case Vodacom is talking sense.

  6. Yeah – pretty much. The Regulator tried to move ahead with licensing some of the IMT700 and 800 bands last year, but got smashed back by government which made a very strange policy change that would see “open access” network idea that was bold.. but hopelessly unworkable. And since then it’s been stalemate again. Not to mention that Digital Migration is stalled… thanks Faith Muthumbi! It’s a giant clusterf***.

  7. 1) Spectrum licenses for high demand bands are national in SA.
    2) Spectrum is not spectrum – higher bands deteriorate sooner over longer distances.In cities this does not matter because the capacity “runs out” before the coverage – sorry if this seems technically flawed but it is in a spirit to be understandable.
    3) The rural tower does not “run out of spectrum”. The signal level deteriorates to a non usable level (Due to high bands being used) long before enough people are covered to make a commercial success of the tower. If lower bands such as 700 and 800MHz are available coverage can extend in big enough footprint to serve enough subscribers to make a commercial success.
    4) As long as there are TV transmissions in the 800MHz band there will be interference. – TV transmitters use several kW of transmitting power and these signals can go for 100’s of km’s
    5) Yes, but these are usually in higher bands (6, 7, 8, 11, 13GHz etc)

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