With demand for mobile data expected to grow as much as a thousand times in the next 10 years, Telkom says it is turning to Wi-Fi and the fourth-generation (4G) LTE Advanced mobile broadband to meet demand while remaining affordable for consumers.
Telkom Mobile senior managing executive Amith Maharaj tells TechCentral that the company isn’t looking at a five-year horizon but is looking a decade down the line in order to ensure its network can meet the anticipated demand for connectivity.
Maharaj says even if mobile operators get access to more radio frequency spectrum to offer mobile broadband, it’s “not going to be sustainable, even if they get 20MHz allocations in the 2,6GHz band”. He says this simply “isn’t going to cater for growth”.
Instead of waiting for spectrum, Telkom is turning to Wi-Fi, which operates in unlicensed frequency bands. “This means [Wi-Fi] is basically ‘free’,” Maharaj says, adding that Telkom has opted to capitalise on this by building numerous public hotspots tied to “bigger pipes to accommodate growth”.
“Operators can complain to the regulator about spectrum, but there’s free spectrum in front of us that could be the answer,” he argues.
Furthermore, he warns that the cost of recovering network investment takes longer in South Africa than in other markets and that this could mean the country “falls behind peer countries” and that the growth of its knowledge economy could suffer as a result.
In order to encourage uptake of Telkom’s Wi-Fi services, the company’s mobile arm is offering customers Wi-Fi bandwidth when they top up their mobile data. “If you’re a customer of ours and spend R100 on Telkom Mobile a month, you get 10GB of free Wi-Fi,” he says. “So, effectively, while R100 buys 2GB on most networks now, with us you’re getting 12GB.”
Maharaj says these types of offers will also help get consumers accustomed to using Wi-Fi and allow them to “really experience broadband”.
Telkom has more than 1 500 public Wi-Fi access points around South Africa and Maharaj says the company has acquired a total of 4 500 sites to date. He says the roll-out takes time because it requires installing the necessary backhaul and that this is a “long process”.
He claims Telkom Mobile is “around a year ahead of the game now” and that this is important because there is going to be a “land grab” in the Wi-Fi market for the best sites. Current sites include shopping malls, airports and McDonald’s restaurants, among other sites. “We’re acquiring new partners and sites every day.”
But Telkom isn’t relying on Wi-Fi alone. Maharaj says the company is also experimenting with LTE Advanced, which promises speeds up to 1Gbit/s. To begin with, the operator is using a method called “carrier aggregation” in which it is combining multiple chunks of spectrum and using them simultaneously to offer better throughput.
Carrier aggregation is one of the methods used to provide LTE Advanced. Another is the use of multiple antennae, which allows devices to “talk to multiple base stations at one time so throughput can increase”.
Maharaj says that at an event on Wednesday he demonstrated an LTE Advanced network achieving a maximum download speed of 221Mbit/s.
“We have 60MHz of spectrum in the 2,3GHz band and we’re using TD-LTE,” Maharaj explains. “We break those into three 20MHz carriers and combined two of those for the test.”
In the test, Telkom connected five users conducting FTP sessions, meaning the connection was constantly at maximum download capacity. “When we brought on more users, it dropped the main user from 221Mbit/s to 100Mbit/s and the other four received between 45Mbit/s and 50Mbit/s. We then added another five users, and the main user dropped to 80Mbit/s while the rest saw speeds of around 30Mbit/s.”
Maharaj says it’s unlikely that in the real world the operator will have that many people “maxing out a connection with FTP”, particularly as services like Apple’s iTunes streaming limit users to a 30Mbit/s port.
“The network is ready,” Maharaj says. “But we need devices to support carrier aggregation at a low cost.” — (c) 2013 NewsCentral Media