MTN South Africa will hit a “spectrum ceiling” soon that could affect its ability to continue to expand services to consumers.
That’s the warning from the mobile operator’s recently appointed chief technology and information officer, Giovanni Chiarelli, who spoke to TechCentral in a wide-ranging podcast interview (to be published later on Friday).
Chiarelli said the lack of new spectrum assignments to mobile operators in South Africa has meant it has had to take a “very surgical approach, trying to balance all the different needs of customers”, taking into consideration device adoption by area. This means technologies and spectrum allocation are tailored down to the neighbourhood level to ensure an optimal experience.
South African operators haven’t formally been allocated spectrum to build 4G/LTE networks and have relied on re-farming their 2G and 3G allocations, especially in the 1,8GHz and 2,1GHz bands to deploy LTE to consumers.
But LTE adoption, Chiarelli said, is lower than the potential of the market, in part because of the lack of spectrum. Communications regulator Icasa has still not licensed access to the key 800MHz and 2,6GHz bands. The 800MHz band, which is particularly well suited to delivering strong indoor LTE coverage and to providing LTE in rural areas, is still being utilised by broadcasters because of South Africa’s failure to migrate from analogue to digital terrestrial television.
“We’ve really been trying to customise and tailor [services] area by area, looking at the customers, the devices and so on. It’s constant work, and it cannot last for long. There will be a moment where we touch the ceiling, and network densification will be really tough.”
But the only real option that MTN has, in the absence of new spectrum, is to densify its network. And this is expensive.
“Plan B is to create a denser grid, but … our network today is already above 10 000 sites. It’s a huge network. A month ago, we surpassed 6 000 LTE sites… At the end of the day, you have to say you could do better investments,” he said.
He said MTN has done studies and knows when it will hit the spectrum ceiling, but he said he’d prefer not to disclose the exact date for competitive reasons. “We are not there yet, but we are starting to see the ceiling getting quite close.”
To avoid hitting the ceiling, “urgent action” is needed if MTN is to avoid having to building “hundreds and hundreds” of new sites simply because it has run out of spectrum. — © 2017 NewsCentral Media