Vodacom pleased with “phenomenal” LTE speed; says there is more to do

Vodacom officials believe they have achieved “phenomenal” spectrum speed after its LTE launch in Johannesburg yesterday, but admit there is still work to be done in rolling out the services nationwide.

Testing the connection speed of the LTE network at the launch event on a Samsung Galaxy S3 LTE enabled phone, Vodacom measured a speed of 53 megabytes per second.

Speaking in an interview with HumanIPO following the launch, Chief Technology Officer Andries Delport said that the company had done a “fairly good job” in rolling out LTE services on a commercial basis for the first time in South Africa. 70 LTE sites are currently live around Johannesburg.

“We still have some way to go, though,” said Delport. “We still need to add at least 450 sites before Christmas.”

Delport promised that Durban and Pretoria would see LTE network services by Christmas. Cape Town will also see some services before the end of the year, but given the city’s older radio infrastructure, work needs to be done before a full LTE service can be provided. A full service is estimated in the next six to twelve months.

The speed of the new LTE network is the latest in a series of gradual increases in Internet speeds in South Africa. Delport considered the huge evolution of network services on offer in the country since the first offering of GPRS data transmission, which could handle speeds of 10 to 30 kilobytes per second. As he points out, “that would just be unusable today”.

In 2004, South Africa rolled out the 3G network – providing speeds of up to 384 kilobytes per second. This 3G was then largely replaced with the 3G network in use today, known as the 3G dual carrier network. This innovation finally upped download speeds to 33 megabytes per second, however with this development 3G technologies hit what Delport calls a “theoretical peak”.

LTE – which has been popularly coined a “4G” technology, despite not strictly meeting the technical requirements for this category – is four to ten times faster than the 3G network. A five megabyte music file will download in 1 second, while a 4-5 gigabyte high-definition video file can be downloaded within 15 to 20 minutes. On the current 3G network, downloading the same video file would take 1.5 to 2.5 hours.

Summarising the achievements of the Vodacom technical team in developing the LTE network, Delport concludes: “We can now provide much better performance and have a much higher capacity. We can give many more subscribers much better performance.”

In order to connect to the LTE network, users must be in an area of LTE coverage (currently only available at the 70 sites in Johannesburg) and own a 4G device which operates on the correct frequency band. Those that qualify must call Vodacom to register their SIM card for LTE services.

The second qualification may be the problematic one, as there is a very limited supply of 4G-enabled handsets on the global market, and certainly not many in South Africa. The iPhone 5 for example is 4G enabled, but no promises have been made as of yet to bring the device to the African market. Handsets bought on different continents, however, may not be tuned to the same frequency as the South African LTE network and as such would not work. However, Delport assures impatient users that LTE dongles should be on the market in the country by the end of the month.

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