London — LTE will be a game changer in terms of how a significant number of Africans use their phones. Its implementation has been slow so far because of the many obstacles it faces: a shortage of devices, lack of appropriate spectrum and waiting to get back investment on 3G. But from our tracking it's clear that a momentum is building up that will see LTE implementation as the big story on data in 2014. Russell Southwood looks at the current state of play.
Since the beginning of 2013, I've been saying that there will be at least a dozen live LTE implementations in Africa. Many operators have already sunk significant money into 3G and its upwards variants to 3.75G. Some have even been cheeky enough to describe 3.75G as 4G.
These operators have a dilemma because as with the beginnings of 3G, so it will be with 4G. There is what can most easily be described as the "sheeps' rush" phenomenon. Once one operator enters the market with LTE, it's not a case of what's the carefully worked out "business case". The next most competitive operator has to have its own LTE offering. As with 3G, it will start in all the larger markets and then cascade down over 24-36 months to nearly all African countries.
So far there are 16 live implementations, 11 of these are mobile operators and 6 are ISPs. The latter means that WiMAX as an ISP technology is not yet facing a significant threat to its predominance in the African ISP space. The Econet implementation in Victoria Falls is almost a pilot but because there is public access we've included it in the live implementations. Also Orange's implementation in Mauritius is only on the island of Rodrigues.
Both mobile operator and ISP coverage is currently focused on high value business and household areas. Following the take-up pattern of 3G, this will change rapidly over the next 12-18 months.
There appear to be a further approximately 16 mobile operator LTE implementations in the pipeline and two more from ISPs. The latter figure may increase but its what's been publicly announced that is being counted here.
The table below lays out where these implementations are:
Mobile Operators Live
Angola (Movicel, Unicel) 2
Namibia (MTC) 1
South Africa (MTN, Vodacom,
Cell C and Neotel) 4
Mauritius (Orange, Emtel) 2
Uganda (MTN) 1
Zimbabwe (Econet) 1
Tanzania (Smile) 1
Uganda (Smile) 1
Nigeria (Swift, Spectranet) 2
Ghana (Surfline) 1
Planned mobile operator
South Africa 1
Morocco (licences 2013) 2
Botswana (Mascom pilot) 1
Zambia (MTN testing) 1
Planned ISP implementations
Nigeria (Smile in pilot phase) 1
DRC (Planned) 1
A speaker at an LTE event in mid 2012 estimated that there only 600,000 LTE compatible SIMs on the continent and that 90% of these were in South Africa. Those numbers may go over the 1 million mark by the end of 2013 and ramp up more rapidly in 2014.
The Global Mobile Suppliers Association recently announced that there were 1,064 LTE devices for users in the market. The only question now is how quickly African mobile operators can provision the majority of their networks for data use.