4G Vs 3G: Telcos Scramble For Subscribers

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As Nigerian telecoms service providers offering 4G LTE technology cast their dragnet to capture more subscribers, brandishing fast speed internet, data, voice and video services, CHIMA AKWAJA takes a look at the simmering battle between the 4G and 3G mobile operators.

In Nigeria, a war is brewing in the telecommunications space as mobile operators riding on third generation (3G) networks brace for the coming onslaught by Fourth Generation Long Term Evolution (4G LTE) networks, who are bent on deploring faster and superior broadband services aimed at the ever demanding Nigerian telecommunication service consumers.

In the last few months, the telecoms space has been inundated with the imminent arrival of 4GLTE networks. New players like Ntel, (formerly Mtel), Smile Communications Nigeria Ltd and MTN with its acquisition of Visafone as well as Intercellular Nigeria have been projecting Voice over Long Term Evolution (VoLTE) together with high speed video and data services to Nigerians.

In fact, last week, Smile Communication, a leading broadband service provider commenced VoLTE service on its 4G LTE network across major cities in Nigeria. The network operates on the 800MHz band designated as Digital Dividend Spectrum by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

Smile is the first operator in West Africa to offer commercial VoLTE service, giving access to voice and video calling. Its SmileVoice, a world-first downloadable free mobile app affords customers with Android smartphone and Apple iPhone device the ability to make super clear voice calls over Smile’s 4G LTE network, or through the use of VoLTE-enabled handsets plus a Smile SIM card on latest devices.

Also, Intercellular Nigeria, one of the pioneer private telephone operators (PTOs) plans to launch 4G LTE services by the second quarter of 2016, in key strategic cities across the country. It has chosen Huawei to migrate its Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) network to a 4G LTE technology in order to provide high speed data and voice services.

Ntel owned by Natcom, the consortium that acquired the assets of Nigerian Telecommunications Limited (NITEL), has also promised abundant broadband on its pure-play advanced 4G/LTE network. Ntel will launch its network in the second quarter of the year. On the other hand, MTN Nigeria is also planning to roll out 4G VoLTE technology with the acquisition of Visafone.

The aggressive launch of 4G LTE services by the merged entity of MTN and Visafone is expected to drive the broadband penetration in the country from under 10 per cent presently, to the targeted 30 per cent by 2018 as per the national broadband plan of the Federal Government and help meet the national broadband plan targets.

What is 4G LTE?

4G LTE is the fastest developing system in the history of mobile communications. In its first year, LTE usage soared from zero to 150 million people, and today about 1.3 billion people benefit from this technology. LTE not only provides super-fast connectivity to millions of users, but can also act as enterprise network connectivity enabler.

Today, 4G mobile technology makes the speed of the current third generation (3G) technology a child’s play. LTE is a mobile network technology that is being deployed by mobile operators on both the GSM and the CDMA technology paths. Depending on the spectrum available, live LTE networks can deliver very fast data speeds of up to 100Mbps in the downlink and 50Mbps in the uplink.

Designed to be backwards-compatible with GSM and HSPA, LTE incorporates Multiple In Multiple Out (MIMO) technology, the Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) air interface in the downlink and Single Carrier FDMA in the uplink.

According to the GSM Association, “This combination provides high levels of spectral efficiency and network performance, coupled with high network capacity and low latency. LTE will support spectrum channel bandwidths from 1.4 MHz to 20 MHz and can operate in both paired spectrum (in FDD mode) and unpaired spectrum (in TDD mode).”

Although both LTE and WiMax use the OFDMA air interface, LTE’s compatibility with existing GSM and HSPA networks enables mobile operators to continue to provide a seamless service across LTE and existing deployed networks.

Spectral Efficiency

The best way to continue to increase network capacity especially in city areas is not by continuing to try and build more towers closer and closer together but by having additional spectrum. There is no additional 3G spectrum available in Nigeria to be licenced by the NCC. For the city areas, the only solution is to make available spectrum in a different band.

Executive Vice Chairman, Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Prof Umaru Danbatta, has promised that the Commission will auction 2.6GHz spectrum band licence from May 16, 2016. This to increase broadband access and make internet pervasive in Nigeria. He said the availability of Digital Spectrum would also herald additional 4G mobile operators.

4G LTE has some inherent advantages over 3G mobile communications, which makes it suitable for connectivity for enterprises. 4G LTE has higher bandwidth (data speeds), it provides true broadband speeds in comparison to 3G. It also provides low latency, lower idle-to-active times (improved network responsiveness).

4G LTE’s high spectrum efficiency means higher network capacity, improved cost efficiency, backwards compatibility and future-proofing. 4G LTE all IP network means easier integration, improved cost efficiency, enhancements to security and Quality of Service differentiation.

LTE Networks and Broadband  

Chief executive officer of Intercellular, Mr Emad Sukker, said there are many surveys globally that indicate a positive correlation between a country’s GDP and broadband penetration. “At Intercellular, we believe that for Nigeria, the pervasive penetration of broadband will strengthen activities of individuals and MSME’s enabling them to expand their craft and services to a global audience.

“As a corporate citizen of Nigeria, Intercellular will continue to invest in advanced technologies that will empower Nigerians in their quest to achieve their aspirations and dreams,” he said.

Huawei will deploy an 800MHz LTE network to help Intercellular meet the strategic and service demands of the Nigerian market.

Depending on its frequency portfolio of the 800MHz and 3.5GHz spectrum, Intercellular intends to provide services to Nigerians with the most advanced communications technologies available today, hence its partnership with Huawei.

The cooperation between Intercellular and Huawei will further promote LTE development in the Nigerian market with construction of an experience-centric LTE network to provide the best online experience for Nigerian users. Intercellular in this cooperation benefits from faster commercial LTE broadband development and transformation.

Mr. Feng Weixiong speaking of Huawei’s presence in Nigeria, said, “we aim to provide the most competitive network services and actively promote LTE to keep up with the increasing standard of communication demanded by the Nigerian people. Huawei has always been the preferred partner of Nigerian operators.

“We work hand-in-hand with operators to promote the rapid development of the Nigerian telecommunications market. As users demand a roads experience and global telecommunications undergoes digital transformation, LTE in Nigeria is the next step in accelerated market development where Huawei will be the strategic partner of choice.”

Nigerians’ Quest For More Data

With about 150 million mobile subscribers and about 97 million Internet users, Nigeria ranks among the fastest growing countries in terms of mobile subscribers and Internet penetration. However, a vast majority of the 97 million Internet users today are experiencing narrow band Internet at 2G/3G speeds.

At present, majority of data users use 2G/3G technologies and it is estimated that LTE users will constitute 80 per cent of all data users by 2019. Availability of 4G LTE mobile broadband services on a national scale, starting 2016, is expected to act as a catalyst to many sectors of the economy like the booming e-Commerce, banking, insurance and financial services, software and IT enabled services etc, and is likely to trigger widening of the revenue base of the federal government into non-oil sectors.

Corporate services executive, MTN Nigeria, Amina Oyagbola, said MTN is making concerted efforts to deepen the growth and roll out of broadband services across the country in support of the National Broadband Plan for the benefit of Nigerians.

“We are committed to exploring avenues for meeting our customers’ increasing data needs in line with our vision ‘to lead the delivery of a bold new digital world to our customers’.

“As we work to maximise our data capabilities towards achieving broadband of international quality, our objective is to ensure that Nigerians experience a boost in the quality of broadband internet services translating to the much needed enhanced data speeds and value to enhance personal and business productivity.”

She said more capacity would facilitate enhanced product/service offerings and experience in the data space to the delight of MTN’s valued customers.

Managing director of NATCOM, Mr. Kamar Abass, said, “over the next four and half years, the total number of mobile broadband customers alone will be greater than all of the customers that have come into the market on mobile since its inception. In other words, we are at a point where a major transformation is in the making.”

He predicted that the Nigeria telecoms sector would have 222 million 4G mobile subscriber base by the year 2020 as subscribers in search of high speed broadband services like voice, video and data move away from 2G and 3G services. He said by 2020, 2G mobile subscription will plummet to 26.8 million. By 2018, 3G subscribers will reach 180 million and start coming down as subscribers move to 4G handsets.

“You will see 168 million mobile broadband customers coming into being between now and the end of 2019, which is more than all the mobile customers (both narrow and broadband) that we have seen in the last 15 years. There is no more 2G growth in Nigeria market as its numbers has saturated at 120 million subscribers. Now, 3G subscribers are growing at the rate of three million per quarter” Abass said.

Mobile Operators Waiting for 4G Spectrum

Industry sources said that Airtel, Etisalat and Globacom are ready to launch their 4G LTE networks as soon as the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) releases the Digital Dividend Spectrum bands to the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and NCC auctions the spectrum bands.

Digital Dividend spectrum is released when television broadcasters switch from analogue platforms to digital only platforms; part of the electromagnetic spectrum that has been used for broadcasting will be freed up because digital TV needs fewer spectrum than analogue television. GSM operators on the 2100MHz bands will move to the new band slots.

At November’s World Radiocommunications Conference 2015 (WRC15), the ITU and national regulators approved the global harmonisation and use of L-band (1427-1518MHz), 200MHz of the C-band (3.4-3.6G Hz), the L-band (1427-1518MHz), expand the 700MHz band (694-790MHz) and the sub-700MHz band (especially 610-694/698MHz) for mobile broadband.

In Sub-Saharan Africa GSM/EDGE-only is still the most popular technology for mobile subscriptions. With 500 million subscriptions forecast in 2015, it still accounts for over 70 per cent of total mobile subscriptions. This is however expected to change rapidly up to 2021, when WCDMA/HSPA combined with LTE will account for almost 80 per cent of subscriptions.

The latest edition of the Ericsson Mobility Report said between 2015 and 2021, data traffic is projected to grow 15 times in Sub-Saharan Africa, driven by an increased spread of LTE. Smartphones will account for almost 95 per cent of mobile data traffic by 2021, up from close to 80 per cent in 2015. Voice traffic over the same period will only marginally increase.

Regional head of Ericsson Sub-Saharan Africa, Fredrik Jejdling, said, “in Sub-Saharan Africa, the dividends of connecting the unconnected through mobile broadband access and driving new services cannot be overlooked as it allows business and society to fulfil their potential and create a more sustainable future.”

Vice president and managing director for Ericsson Nigeria, Johan Jemdahl, said by the end of 2021, monthly mobile data traffic in Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to be almost 2,200 Petabytes (PB) driven by growing smartphone ownership and a lack of fixed broadband availability driven by digital TV and 4G LTE networks.

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