What does LTE actually mean for ordinary South Africans ?

South Africa LTE

“The winds of change are upon us” – No where is change more relevant than the South African mobile landscape where MTN, Vodacom, Cell C and 8ta have all announced that they will be offering LTE networking services to their customers.

Today at the My Broadband conference Vodacom has ambitiously announced that they have the first commercially available LTE service in South Africa. This was of course received with much applause and excitement as the news hit the Twitterverse and Retweeted thousands of times as the news spread around the country.

so why should I care about LTE ?

Its all about the need for speed. South African are “limited” in the amount of affordable fast internet access we have access to. LTE not only has amazing download and upload speeds that ADSL can only dream of, but also has the ability to unchain us from our desks as this service is available on the mobile networks. Depending how far you are from the cell phone base station, you can get speed in excess of 60mb per second.  Imagine the possibilities for decent broadband speed – and on a mobile device. Wow.

So should we cancel our ADSL and Diginet lines ?

Hang on  – lets look at this LTE thing carefully minus the media hype.

All new technology, come with their own set of problem. Here are the current 5 issues with LTE:

First Issue – Price:

Vodacom LTE price

MTN will have LTE before the year end. 8ta is in public trial phase and Cell C isn’t saying much at this stage. So we can only look at Vodacom commercial offering now.

Vodacom is not charging extra for the LTE service. You need a 64kb or 128kb SIM card that will be provisioned for the LTE service and once you set the APN on your compatible device you are ready. 

However, according to the Vodacom website the “Data usage will be charged at your normal contract rates whether you are using 3G or LTE data.”

What does this practically mean ?

I have a MyGig2 that gives me 2GB of data at R349 and I pay R2 for every MB above that. If you look at Vodacom’s LTE speed of 63mb/s it means that in 60 seconds I can download 3780megabits of data (60 seconds x 63mb per second). 2GB is 16384 megabits. So this means that in 4 minutes I can chew through my data plan.

hmmm….not so attractive.

Second issue – availability:

Vodacom LTE coverage

In order to provide LTE the base stations/ towers of the cell phone provider need to be connected via fibre or else the speeds will not be achieved. This is a massive project that has been in progress for years and will continue into the future as the country is criss-crossed with fibre. A great move but still some time away. So this means that you will not get a consistent LTE experience regardless of where you are.

Looking at Vodacom’s offering it has LTE at 70 sites around the Johannesburg area and comes with this not-so-clear disclaimer on their coverage map:Vodacom LTE

MTN has over 200 LTE towers when I was testing it and will have 500 by year end in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban.

so not a constant LTE experience and we still don’t know what will happen to data when out of LTE coverage. I assume it will drop to 3G. What will happen to calls that i do over Skype ?

Third issue – theoretical speed:

mtn lte speedtest

The speeds are theoretically possible and have been proven on the various test devices. My MTN LTE speed were off-the-chart amazing. The issue is that the LTE strength and speed is shared by all the people in the same location. The more people the less there is to go around. so whilst LTE will still be considerably faster than we have now, don’t expect it to stay that way as more and more people sign up. Although this will take time so if you sign up now, you can have the best speed as the tower will probably be mostly yours.

Fourth issue – lack of devices:

LTE modem

There are no consumer ready devices – so you cant just get the SIM and switch on the LTE service. You need new hardware. Only now we are seeing devices being LTE ready and even these might not work on the South African LTE network as they are speced for the overseas LTE networks. eg. the New iPad runs on the AT&T LTE network  (700 & 2100 MHz) and on the Verizon LTE network (700 MHz). The SA networks aren’t in that MHz. If you are about to buy the Samsung Galaxy S3 or Note 2 wait until the LTE version come out soon.  Vodacom has a list of compatible device here which I am sure the other networks will be in the same boat when they bring out their LTE offering.

By the way: I like 8ta’s approach. They will bring my-fi (personal hotspots) that will be LTE ready. You then connect to it with any device you have via the normal WiFi and create your own private network. This is a great strategy so you dont have to buy new device to get the speed.

Fifth issue – spectrum:

LTE Spectrum

It all ultimately boils down to radio frequency spectrum. Our Government is suppose to issue these frequency bands and they have done such a mess of it that there are companies who sit with these unused spectrum and do nothing with them whilst the cellular networks are struggling to use their current spectrum to reallocate it to for LTE. This means that the current networks takes a beating whilst making provisions for LTE.

The unused spectrum really needs to be made available to the companies who can use them and then LTE becomes a real quality network.

So in summary:

Is LTE the future ? – yes. Is it ready right now for everyone ? No. Will LTE change the country’s ability to access the internet at decent “international” speeds – yes.  Should we be excited this is happening ? definitely.

What the best part ? all the operators are competing so the commercial offers to the public should be brilliant.

when they all finally launch that is…

One comment

Add your comment