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African mobile operators struggle with network quality

Rebecca Wanjiku | Jan. 30, 2014
Africa's mobile operators are contending with capital and operational demands, pressure from shareholders for higher returns and a lack of sufficient spectrum to address the needs of evolving technology, all of which is creating conflict with regulators over the quality of service.

The regulator seems to be taking the spectrum debate back to the operators, saying that in rapidly developing countries, modern networks are modular and capable of expansion, without investing in new networks from scratch, rather just adding modules.

"With good radio network and traffic management planning, the spectrum assigned to the mobile operators should be sufficient to support even a higher number of subscribers," added Wangusi.

South Africa has also dealt with the spectrum challenges, with operators being forced to re-farm their existing 3G spectrum in order to roll out 4G in the country. The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) has not licensed any new spectrum in the past few years.

"Vodacom, MTN and Cell C have begun to re-farm their existing 3G spectrum (1800MHz and 2100MHz) in order to build out 4G networks. Effectively, the operators are now squeezing two networks (3G and 4G) into the spectrum that was used for 3G only in the past, which means that voice and data quality on the 3G network may be suffering as a result," Pater of Africa Analysis added.

Most of the networks are privately owned and shareholder returns compete with the desire to spread the network in rural and economically unattractive places, where there is no service. In Kenya, the Universal Service Fund is expected to help operators move into new areas, but its operation has been hampered by disagreements with the operators over how it should be run.

"As currently constituted, USF is managed and operated by the regulator. However, we continue to engage with the Ministry Of Information and Communication and with the regulator towards a framework that provides direct subsidies to operators who have delivered services in remote areas. This could come in the form of spectrum waivers or direct subsidy to rollout of services like fiber in remote and commercially unviable areas," Safaricom's Waita said.

Safaricom is due for license renewal in June, and it is unlikely that the regulator will raise major issues, given that the company is the largest contributor to the Kenyan exchequer, employs a sizable number of telecom experts and has invested in network rollout to the farthest parts of the country.


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