Allan Knott-Craig, Cell CAllan Knott-Craig, Cell C

Long-term Evolution (LTE), the latest wireless communications standard that promises super-fast mobile data speeds, took centre stage at the recent AfricaCom event, held in Cape Town.

The event, attended by almost 8 000 delegates from across Africa, focuses on issues relating to ICT growth on the continent. In his opening keynote, telecoms veteran , CEO of and previous CEO of , related some of the challenges that are seemingly overlooked amid the hype around .

The first of these challenges is the coverage. In South Africa, the amazing speeds promised (up to 100mbps, 10 times the speed that ’s most recent copper cable installations can manage), will not be available to most users. On the one hand, the country faces a capacity issue. Aside from the fact that there is currently not enough telecommunications spectrum, the base stations still need to be built. Knott-Craig said it was not reasonable to roll out four separate networks, the way the operators did with the previous technologies, because there is only so much space for the base stations and a very limited pool of spectrum.

On the other hand, in order to obtain the promised speeds, requires a fibre backbone, one that SA – and Africa in general – still has to lay.

Billy Osano Owino, the Qualcomm regional head for east Africa, likened the problem to taking an eight-lane highway () and narrowing it to one lane of traffic (copper cable or microwave infrastructure). Without fibre, there is very little point in deploying , he said, because the experience would be terrible.

Another challenge Africa faced in rolling out is the high cost of mobile data. Using 3G technology, it would currently take a South African about 45 minutes to download a 1GB file (depending on area, strength of signal, etc); with maximum speed it would take two minutes. A user who usually budgets 10GB a month could, in theory, use that up in under half an hour.

Smile Telecoms, which recently deployed the first all- network in Africa, in partnership with Alcatel-
Lucent, mentioned at AfricaCom that the company had already encountered this problem. Customers have come to them with “bill shock”. A specific customer who ordered 20GB of data for the month came back to them four days later, wondering where it had gone already.

“With voice, I can’t talk to you faster than you can hear,” said Knott-Craig. “Data’s not like that, data’s agnostic. It doesn’t give a damn. And there’s more data in the world than you can imagine, and the faster the speeds get, the more data arrives.”

As long as operators try to keep the same margins of profit on data, the average consumer cannot afford to make use of technology, Knott-Craig said.

He warned delegates to remember that despite the hype around new technology, “communications is a means to an end, it’s not the end”.