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Early 4G launches in Africa more about marketing than technology

Movicel of Angola and MTC of Namibia have launched commercial LTE (Long Term Evolution) services in the past two months, becoming the first in Africa to go 4G. LTE is the technology behind fourth-generation mobile services, offering vastly faster Internet connections. Like many African operators, Movicel and MTC have been testing LTE for a while, planning their commercial launches. Commercial launches in Africa usually don’t pan out strictly according to plan, especially with brand new technologies. But Movicel pulled a surprise when it announced its commercial LTE launch a month ahead of schedule.

Innovation in data applications in Africa in the past ten years has been impressive. In many instances, instead of copying technologies from developed countries, local markets have pioneered technologies tailored to the region. The local innovation attending to local needs generated hugely popular data applications in areas as varied as social media and banking. All of this activity around mobile applications has been driving data usage phenomenally, while voice traffic is growing strongly because of network expansions in rural areas.

By 2016, cellular-network traffic in Africa is expected to be at least nine times that of 2011 levels, from a little over 173 billion megabytes to over 1.5 trillion, according to Informa Telecoms & Media research. With multi-SIM penetration in Africa at less than 60 per cent, voice is still likely to be a large component of this bulging traffic, but data is becoming more important, because of strong demand for Internet access and data applications.

This has been the trend for the past few years, and several African operators have responded quickly by deploying 3G and 3.5G networks, based on WCDMA and HSDPA technologies. At end-2011, operators in more than 50 African countries were already offering 3G services.

The rapid rollout of 3G networks has helped operators cope with growing demands on network capacity, but the scale of the problem is such that the operators need to find more efficiency in spectrum usage. LTE, the technology behind 4G, brings such efficiency by conserving radio spectrum while vastly improving the user experience.

Proactive regulators, engaged governments and booming economies have helped operators in Angola and Namibia fast-track 4G launches, with competitive pressure adding to the dynamics in Angola. For this year, the IMF forecasts nine per cent GDP growth in Angola and four per cent in Namibia. And the strong economic growth has created boom towns in Luanda and Windhoek. The initial 4G services are targeting these two cities.

With spectrum scarcity rarely an issue in Africa, it’s the regulatory clarity and the engagement of government that makes or breaks the pace of growth in Africa’s telecoms markets. In Namibia’s case, the prime minister’s office was actively pushing for the modernisation of the country’s telecoms network. The regulator’s swift spectrum-usage approvals and Windhoek’s prompt clearance for laying high-capacity fibres to link LTE cells have helped expedite the commercial rollout of LTE.

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