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By Jennigay Coetzer – Business Day, 17 May 2011

The main hurdles to bringing mobile broadband connectivity to the broader SA population include the need for cheaper phones with internet capabilities and wider 3G coverage on the networks. For example, Vodacom currently has 4,300 3G base stations, which provides coverage to 75% of the population, says CEO Pieter Uys.

“Our vision is to give all our customers access to 3G connectivity within the next two years.” In addition, the cost of top-end smartphones that have an operating system that supports the downloading of mobile applications needs to drop to under $100, says Uys.

“We believe this is achievable this year.” Uys says with four mobile operators now competing in this market this has brought down tariffs considerably.

“SA mobile data tariffs are at the lower end compared to the rest of the world, whereas fixed line data tariffs are at the higher end.” He says new advanced technologies are allowing more efficient use of wireless spectrum, which puts pressure on the mobile operators to implement these as soon as possible.

As the technology advances users experience greater speeds over the same network infrastructure at the same cost. The new national fibre network being built by Neotel, Vodacom and MTN will increase transmission speeds between the mobile operators base stations, although it will take another 12 to 18 months to complete.

He says to provide broadband data connectivity to more people, the mobile networks also need more wireless spectrum to support increasing volumes of traffic over the last mile between base stations and customers. The mobile operators should not therefore be excluded when the long awaited additional spectrum licenses are awarded.

Rufus Andrew, MD of Nokia Siemens Networks SA says the mobile operators were caught off guard by the rapid growth in the demand for mobile data capacity, which is being driven by the greater availability of bandwidth hungry applications. “When users interact with media rich applications like video streaming they expect an acceptable quality of service.”

With all the undersea cables coming into operation and the national fibre networks being built there will be an explosion in available bandwidth over the next 18 months, says Andrew. This will give the mobile operators access to greater long distance broadband bandwidth from multiple infrastructure providers, in addition to the fibre and microwave infrastructure they are building themselves.

But they must implement Long Term Evolution (LTE) mobile technology and WiMAX wireless networks to provide higher speeds over the last mile infrastructure between their backbone networks and the customer. If they were to continue to just provide 3G services on their existing GSM networks, this would just move the bottleneck closer to the users, says Andrew.

He says one of the hurdles still to overcome is the awarding of the licenses for the spectrum needed to deliver LTE and WiMAX services. Once the operators are in possession of these licenses, it will still take an average of 18 months to two years for them to finish upgrading their networks and set up service management processes to deliver LTE and WiMAX services.

Jennigay Coetzer is a freelance business and technology journalist and she writes regularly for Business Day. She also runs media training and writing skills workshops, and is the author of A Perfect Press Release – or Not?, a guide to writing and distributing effective press releases, an electronic version of which can be downloaded free from her website: www.jennigay.co.za.

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