Africa sees some growth in 3G trials, services

With several vendors starting trials for third-generation wireless services in Africa, and other providers recently announcing their intention to try out the technology, people across the continent are due to get their first taste of the new technology.

The epicenter of the 3G bustle is in South Africa. Vodacom Group Pty. Ltd. is currently conducting trials of 3G services in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and plans to deploy the service in December. Sentech Pty. Ltd. started providing Internet access in Johannesburg, Midrand, Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town last December. Mobile Telephone Networks Pty. Ltd. has also made it public that it will offer 3G services next year, somewhere in South Africa.

Vodacom plans to target business users with video streaming, video telephony and other services, according to Mthobi Tyamzashe, group executive for corporate affairs. Sentech, meanwhile, is targeting consumers with its Internet connectivity service under the brand name MyWireless, according to its chief operating officer, Gladwin Marumo. MyWireless offers 128Kbps, 256Kbps and 512Kbps transmission speeds with Time Division Code Division Multiple Access (TD-CDMA) technology.

In North Africa, Tunisian operator PTT CERT has completed a Wideband CDMA (W-CDMA ) network in two of the country’s most important cities: Sousse and Tunis.

Meanwhile, providers in Nigeria have also made public their intention to provide 3G services. For instance, Motorola Inc.’s Global Telecom Solutions Sector (GTSS) group was awarded a contract to expand the CDMA fixed wireless local loop network for Intercellular Nigeria Ltd.

Sector analysts point to an array of factors that fueled the movement on the 3G front on the continent. Ashraf Patel, a telecommunications expert for the Open Society Initiative for South Africa, a non-government economic and cultural development organization, underscores two factors: African telecommunications companies are following trends already established in the European markets, and corporations are demanding content services.

However, Patel is cautious, stressing lessons learned from the rollout of mobile services in other regions. “We should learn from the experience of General Packet Radio Service (GPRS). It was released when uptake for the service was low, high cost, non-user friendly, and had too many services,” Patel said.

Although Gillian Marcelle, an expert in technology in emerging markets, also agrees that African telecommunication companies are followers of technological trends, she thinks they are rolling out services under a different context than European operators found themselves in. For example, African governments have avoided using the auction mechanism for deciding which companies get licenses. This is probably a good thing, Marcelle said. In Europe, many analysts now say that carriers, having paid billions of dollars for licenses, are now under great financial strain as they try to roll out 3G services.

Developments on the 3G front in Africa will be modest for the mid-term, Marcelle said.

“For the next decade voice is going to account for a higher portion of the business in terms of revenue and earnings for telcos in Africa,” Marcelle said.

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