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Saturday, October 4, 2014

Why do we need 4G in Kenya?

Many months ago, I read a Daily Nation article that questioned why Kenya needs 4G in spite of low 3G uptake.

Notwithstanding, even before the 3G signal is widely deployed across the country, mobile operators are gearing up to launch fourth generation (4G) mobile networks.

John Walubengo then asks:

Why do we need 4G when we are barely maximizing the use of 3G technology? Yes, 4G technologies can theoretically give users internet broadband speeds that range between 10-100mbs while 3G tends to get capped at 2mbs. But how many of us are actually connecting to the internet at broadband speeds of 2mbs? 

Still, other analysts contend that Kenya is not ready for a 4G network.
To date, only Safaricom has extensive 3G coverage, but even that is not countrywide.

Safaricom base stations

Current 3G coverage and rollout plans

In April 2013, CCM asked Nzioka Waita, Safaricom Corporate Affairs Director when subscribers can expect Safaricom to cover every area covered by the 2G network. "Our 2G network footprint covers 80% of the Kenyan population and 3G is an overlay on the 2G footprint."

Lilian Mwangi, of the Corporate Affairs and PR Department at Airtel Kenya, informed CCM at the time that Airtel Kenya was currently on phase II of the Airtel data rollout. "With an investment of over Ksh 8.5 billion in support of network expansion in urban and rural Kenya for voice and internet services, we foresee that by the end of the second phase, we should have more than 600 sites on 3.75G."

Maureen Sande of Orange Kenya Corporate Affairs told CCM that since launching a 3G network, the 2011 plan was realised within the target time frame. She also updated us of the upgrade plan as of April 2013 and going forward. "Based on the assessment of the uptake of the service so far, Orange is planning to add 200 more sites this year; progressively into 2014. The business is also targeting full indoor coverage of Nairobi within this period."

Right about the same time, Essar Telecom, operating as yuMobile in Kenya announced that it would move straight to 4G LTE from GSM 2G in its mobile broadband strategy. "Currently, we are evaluating the business models for both 3G and LTE as we are aware that this upgrade is required in the near future." Sheila Maviala told CCM.

The Limitations of 3G coverage

In Kenya, 3G (UMTS/HSPA) networks operate on the 2100MHz frequency. In some European countries, the UMTS 900MHz frequency is used while 850MHz is used in American markets. Local GSM networks have deployed 2G on the 900MHz and 1800MHz frequencies. Telkom Kenya (Orange) operates a CDMA/EVDO network on the 800MHz frequency.

Use of the 2100 is the most limiting factor in the expansion of 3G network coverage.This is for the simple reason that the 2.1GHz has limited reach and suffers serious attenuation unlike signals on the 900MHz frequency. To cover the same area using 2100MHz, more sites are needed.

Site number reduction in 900MHz band.

According to a Motorola position paper titled "Deploying UMTS in the 900MHz Band: Coverage, Penetration, Cost Savings" there are several benefits of deploying UMTS in the 900MHz band:
  • signal coverage of 2-4 times the signal coverage in the 2100MHz band. This significantly reduces the number of base stations required for deployment.
  • improved indoor coverage in urban areas. It has been shown that in-building penetration increases by as much as 25%.
  • the added potential for re-use of existing GSM base stations, antenna systems and feeders if deployed within existing GSM sites. 
  • the very likely elimination of spectrum auctions and fees.
  • lower power consumption, thanks to improved efficiency of the RF power amplifier. (It should be noted that this is one of the largest electricity consumption items in a Node B).
In other words, the lower the frequency, the better the coverage.

Additional coverage area provided by GSM 900MHz.

Also, a UMTS Forum white paper [PDF] titled "UMTS/HSPA broadband services in the 900 MHz band: Strategy and Deployment" further outlines UMTS 900MHz benefits:
  • quicker network deployment
  • limited impact on Capex by re-using existing antenna systems
  • limited impact on Opex through re-use of network management systems
In view of the aforementioned benefits, why then do many networks still deploy UMTS in the 2100MHz band?
Some of the challenges of deploying UMTS 900 are to blame:
  • Regulatory prohibitions where spectrum is still allocated in terms of technology.
  • obtaining sufficient spectrum. UMTS requires a minimum 5MHz of paired spectrum.
  • intereference issues which result from spectrum crowding, thanks to frequency re-use.
  • gradual adoption which may delay reaching sufficient traffic density to achieve operational efficiency for UMTS 900.
  • availability of compatible mobile devices which can switch seamlessly between 900MHz and 2100MHz.
Frequency refarming is currently the only solution to any Kenyan operator who wishes to deploy 4G in the 700MHz band, which would be ideal with greater coverage, lower deployment costs and enhanced indoor penetration as outlined above.
Kenyan operators are currently licensed to use [PDF] only 900MHz and 2100MHz spectrum.

According to the Kenya Frequency Allocations Table [PDF], the 470-806MHz frequency is currently used for UHF analogue television broadcasting. Telkom Kenya then uses the 806-862MHz band for fixed wireless and wireless (CDMA).
The recent Supreme Court ruling on the protracted battle between Kenyan broadcasters (specifically Nation Media Group, Standard Group and Royal Media Services Ltd) and Communications Authority of Kenya on digital migration casts aspersions on just how soon Kenya will effect digital television migration.

In effect, the 700MHz will remain unavailable for 4G LTE network deployment, making requency refarming the only option. In any case, Kenyan telcos could not agree on a joint 4G LTE license. This prompted Safaricom to apply for a license on its own, after demonstrating in May last year, very impressive LTE speeds.

Late last year, CCK advised Safaricom to simply reuse its frequencies to roll out 4G LTE:

“CCK has already advised Safaricom to re-farm (if they wish) all or part of their already assigned spectrum.”

Interestingly, Safaricom and Airtel Kenya had different answers regarding regulatory prohibitions when CCM enquired about 3G in Kenya. We asked: "Would there be regulatory objections to Telkom deploying UMTS on the 900MHz frequency?" These are the answers we got:

Safaricom: The Licensing regime in Kenya is technology neutral and refarming of our existing frequency bands is an option under review.

Airtel Kenya: Frequency refarming would have to be approved by the regulator – CCK. The current regulatory framework allows only 2G on the 900Mhz band and 3G on 2100Mhz.  whenever the regulatory framework changes, Airtel will comply accordingly.

Orange Kenya: There will be no objection from the industry regulator if we decided to refarm the 900MHz frequency; we are working on a trial for the same. We shall only be required to inform the regulator and seek type approval of the network equipment to be deployed. 

Bearing in mind that wireless spectrum is a finite, scarce and costly resource, it remains to be seen if Kenyan telcos will consider refarming spectrum in the future.

Why then do we need 4G? 

The simple reason is that we now have very many devices (smartphones, tablets, computers etc) that are optimized for high speed Internet.
Ironically, mobile broadband is the preferred choice for data access for many subscribers due to its ubiquity and price flexibility.

This unprecedented increase in data hungry devices has placed a heavy burden on mobile broadband networks which were originally built to support voice services and data transmission at lower speeds. As shown above, Kenyan telcos have at most 10MHz paired spectrum on either the 900MHz, 1800MHz and 2100MHz bands.

4G LTE when deployed on the desired frequencies comes with the promise of more bandwidth (20MHz or more). In USA for instance, Verizon uses 20MHz bandwidth and T-Mobile has 40MHz.

This strain on networks has necessitated scrapping of unlimited data plans both locally and abroad

Fixed networks such as ADSL, optic fibre and fixed wireless such as WiMAX do not have as much penetration thanks to many limiting factors such as steep pricing and logistical challenges of laying out fibre in neighborhoods. For this reason, these Internet service providers restrict themselves to urban and suburban areas. 

This leaves mobile networks as the only choice a customer has and with many going for the telcos for Internet access, the  need for 4G Internet can only increase.