Despite ongoing challenges in obtaining the spectrum necessary for 4G long-term evolution (LTE) services, South Africa’s ICT sector has seen a number of operators invest billions in rolling out new services and infrastructure as demand for high-speed mobile services soars. Innovation plays a key role in many new offerings, which include pre-paid 4G LTE SIM cards and voice over LTE (VoLTE) services, demonstrating the sector’s agility and flexibility in meeting rising mobile data demand.
In April 2015 Cell C announced plans to invest R8bn ($691m) over the next three years to establish 4G LTE services in metropolitan areas, with commercial operations expected to launch in late 2015 after the company completes construction of 4000 base transceiver stations. The company also plans to build an additional 1353 3G sites, largely within areas outside and between the metropolitan centres that will comprise its 4G LTE network.
Telkom is also moving to launch its own next-generation mobile broadband, announcing in November 2014 that it had abandoned plans to roll out fibre-to-the-home internet services across select suburbs and would focus instead on rolling out a 4G LTE-Advanced (LTE-A) network connecting more than 50 suburban communities by the end of 2014. Over the longer term, the company hopes to increase internet speeds to more than 200 Mbps, while subscribers in Gauten, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape will eventually benefit from speeds of up to 3 Gbps.
Although 4G LTE services remain concentrated in wealthy suburbs across Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, some operators have begun rolling out innovative 4G LTE services to expand access and availability in under-served areas. For example, Afrihost, which was acquired by MTN in November 2014, announced in April 2015 it would expand market coverage by rolling out 4G LTE services to subscribers who cannot afford to access traditional DSL internet. Deploying a combination of a router and mobile data package, the company offers download speeds of up to 150 Mbps, with three versions of a monthly data plan on offer: 500 MB for R29 ($2.51) per month, R145 ($12.53) for 3 GB per month and R397 ($34.30) for 8 GB.
MTN, for its part, began rolling out 4G LTE pay-as-you-go SIM cards to pre-paid cellular customers in August 2014. To access the company’s network, cus-tomers will require LTE-capable handsets and must be located near one of the company’s 790 LTE sites spread across the country. MTN plans to construct an additional 825 LTE sites in the coming years.
4G LTE network technology offers an improved responsiveness that makes a range of voiceover internet protocol applications, such as Skype and Facebook, function with minimal latency. This has attracted the attention of mobile operators adapting to a growing customer preference for data services.
Recognising the potential in higher data demand, Vodacom became the first service provider in South Africa to launch VoLTE services on its network in April 2015. Customers using the Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge handsets are now able to make voice calls on Vodacom’s 4G LTE network, which will provide faster dialling and high call quality. The company has announced that there will be no extra charge for the use of its VoLTE services.
Wide-scale adoption of 4G LTE services remains constrained by lack of available spectrum, with delayed digital TV migration posing a serious near-term challenge to operators. The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) has announced that the migration is unlikely to take place until 2017. Nonetheless, ICASA plans to introduce a scheme under which mobile operators and broadcasters are able to share spectrum – showing that, like many operators in the market, ICASA is seeking innovative solutions to meet interim demand.