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The 4G mobile network challenge facing Africa’s operators

According to a GSMA Intelligence research last month, the number of 4G-LTE mobile networks in Africa has doubled over the last 18 months with coverage now reaching one in five people.

However, the organisation says adoption in Africa still lags the rest of the world, with all regions (except Africa) expected to exceed 75% 4G coverage in terms of population by 2020. Africa will reach 32% with adoption level below 10%.

The research cites the competitive nature of many markets as a significant challenge to operators looking to secure ROI in a wide-scale 4G network.

Riaan Graham, Sales Director for Ruckus Wireless, sub-Saharan Africa, agreed that LTE will be deployed everywhere, but it will take some time and come at a significant cost to operators.

“In fact, recent research has indicated that around 50% of Africa’s population is forecast to be covered by LTE networks by the end of 2018,” said Graham. “However, even with the capacity that LTE delivers, it’s simply not enough to support the exponential traffic growth rates that we are seeing.”

Graham explained that Africa’s telecom environment has undergone significant change over the last few years.

He referred to ITU research which shows competition among African countries has triggered investments in terrestrial fibre optic infrastructure, and the related influences including access, affordable smartphones, the dominance of social media and Over-the-Top (OTT) services.

With mobile data traffic growing and revenue per gigabyte falling, operators need to reduce network carriage costs by 50% or they will face an insurmountable eight-fold increase in the costs of radio access network (RAN) equipment, research suggests.

“One approach to reducing network transport costs that is attracting a great deal of interest from mobile network operators involves carrying a proportion of the traffic on more cost-efficient small cells. Because Wi-Fi is widely deployed and competitively priced, it is ideal for this application,” says Graham.

Graham believes Wi-Fi is complementary to 4G/LTE and not a replacement, particularly in high-density areas where increased LTE investment in prohibitive for Wi-Fi to be used to handle data traffic without having to redesign the core of the mobile network.

“Wi-Fi will go a long way towards helping operators decrease CAPEX while increasing coverage and capacity because it can cost anywhere from 20 to 30% of an equivalent macro deployment.”

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