Telecom poised to modernize in South Africa

Welcome to 2005, the year that telecommunications is finally set to enter the modern era in South Africa. The SNO is almost here, 3G is here, and wireless broadband is here.

While opinion on the SNO will have to wait until it starts operating, consensus on 3G and wireless broadband is that both have failed to deliver on expectations so far. The crucial issue here is coverage, or the lack thereof….

While one obviously needs to take into account the fact that Sentech (Pty) Ltd., WBS iBurst, Vodacom Group (Pty) Ltd. and the like are still rolling out base stations, complaints have been relatively numerous on the service in the areas that do have coverage. Sentech in particular has come under heavy fire.

Says Citrix Systems SA MD, Chris Norton: “We have tested all of the available technologies with a view to utilizing them at our offices, and have been disappointed. If you have never had access, then they are great, but they are not corporate-ready yet.”

Internet Solutions (IS) Mobile Solutions Manager, Richard Vester, concurs: “3G coverage is very questionable at the moment. For example, we are 500m from a base station, and still have limited cover — it goes from 3G to GPRS as you walk from room to room. And, if you look at overall 3G/GPRS and wireless broadband coverage, it is greater on GSM provisioning services based on what we have seen and tested, particularly in the regions (Durban, Cape Town, PE etc).”

A further issue, at present, is the shortage of 3G handsets. Only two models (the Motorola E1000 and Ericsson Z1010) are currently available locally, and these are apparently relatively hard to source.

Vodacom COO, Pieter Uys, says that the company will be launching the consumer Vodafone live! Offering in the next month, and will bring in ‘big volumes’ of compatible handsets then. “We did not want to bring in huge volumes of phones before the service was ready,” he notes.

On the coverage issue, Uys says the company plans to have rolled out a further 1 000 base stations by December. MTN is launching into the fray with Enhanced Data for Global Evolution (Edge) soon, and, added to this, hotspot provision is now taking off, with Telkom SA Ltd. having entered that market, and IS set to launch in hotels and airports countrywide. All of this is good news for consumers and corporates looking to be as connected as possible, all of the time, from any device — provided that the quality of service is up to scratch. “

The networks are currently not geared to offer data quality of service (QoS),” states Vester. “Data is thrown in with voice, and voice gets priority.” Whether that situation will change any time soon, or not, remains to be seen.

Cell C has, as yet, given no indication of any plans to move to 3G. An advantage that both MTN and Cell C (if it jumps) have over Vodacom, is the ability to start a new service from scratch. Vodacom, with its Vodafone alliance, is paying licence fees for a European offering that has not been tried in Africa. It remains to be seen if the model will prove financially viable here.

Added to that, infrastructure in Africa is not as robust as that in Europe, and outages are common. Vodacom’s Blackberry service runs off U.K.-based servers. If the device cannot contact the server, it cancels the user’s security key after five tries. How does BlackBerry aim to cope with line flaps (as they are known in the trade)? A further consideration is that Vodacom is courting branding confusion by heavily punting the Vodafone brand.

Further down the line, IS is looking at implementing WiMax on its hotspot network, and Vodacom will be moving to High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA). “HSDPA,” says Uys, “is coming this year. The standards have been set, and it will merely require a software upgrade on the network to implement.

“HSPDA is to 3G what Edge is to GPRS,” stats Uys. “It takes 3G from around 384kb per user to 2MB or so.” One way or another, progress is certainly being made in the move to offering local users a far wider bouquet of communications services than has previously been available. The trick for corporates, as usual, will be to determine what offering best suits the business’ needs.

Key for service providers, says Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. senior product manager, John Stallard, will be finding and forming alliances with third party content providers.

3G offers endless potential for service provision — from video streaming, to personalized voice mail messages that users can leave for people calling them (called ringback tones), access to corporate databases for mobile workers, location-based services, to the more obvious Internet access, mobile e-mail and MMS. If providers are going to stream live sport, for example, they will need to hook up to a broadcaster to do so.

A further consideration is the increased overlap between voice and data, and thus the cellular service providers and the ISPs. The former is inexperienced in providing quality data, the latter in quality voice. The gulf between engineers and technical staff on either side is yet to be bridged. Could we see an ISP, cellular SP merger?

On the service provider front, Icasa is currently being lobbied to provide licences for ‘virtual network operators’. First in line, should such licences be issued, will be Autopage Cellular, says company MD, Stephen Blewett. “Going forward we want to be able to set our own tariffs on whatever services are out there.

Broadband is key to the future, and we want to be able to offer broadband fixed-line services. As far as we are concerned, customers want one provider for mobile, fixed-line and broadband. We already do that in the cellular space, and want to expand this. Broadband is currently very expensive, and we want to be able to drive the price down through acting as a virtual network operator, leveraging the unused capacity on other providers’ networks.”

Price is, fortunately, one area that the increased competition in this market will have a positive effect on. Given the cost of upgrading to 3G, and increased competition in the wireless/hotspot space, providers will have to juggle to remain competitive and profitable, however.

One thing is certain in all of this, it is very early days for 3G and wireless broadband in SA. Users would do well to adopt a wait and see approach before signing 24-month contracts, or locking themselves into one provider.

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