Africa gears up for LTE deployments, with Orange, Surfline and Smile leading the charge

CAPE TOWN--LTE networks and services are not yet widely available across the African continent, but there are clear signs that operators in several markets are planning their rollout strategies, while some have already started offering commercial LTE services.

A clear initial business model for LTE in Africa is DSL replacement and substitution. Many markets in Africa have limited or no fixed networks, and LTE represents a good solution for mobile broadband access at home, in the office and on the go.

According to Daniel Jaeger, vice president for Africa at Alcatel-Lucent, who was speaking to FierceWireless:Europe at AfricaCom here, two clear sub-markets are also now emerging for LTE services in Africa. On one hand, operators with existing 2G and 3G networks will pursue LTE in order to remain competitive and continue to "play the game," as Jaeger put it.

That is clearly demonstrated by Orange, for example. The company is rolling out LTE networks this year in some of its markets in Africa and the Middle East, including Senegal, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ivory Coast, Botswana, and Mauritius.

A second sub-market is comprised of data-only players that are building LTE networks from scratch and have no 2G or 3G legacy networks. Such operators so far include Smile, Surfline Communications, and Cameroon-based Yoomee. "LTE-only is something of an African phenomenon," Jaeger added.

Surfline was set up from scratch as an LTE company in 2011 when the government of Ghana decided to award three broadband wireless access licences in the 2.6 GHz spectrum band.

According to Surfline's marketing director, Rosy Fynn, who was speaking at AfricaCom on Thursday, Surfline launched its first LTE services in parts of Ghana in 2014 following a live test programme, and now has more than 200 sites across the country. The company uses network equipment from Alcatel-Lucent and sells own-branded dongles and Wi-Fi routers made by Huawei and TCT Mobile.

"The response was phenomenal," said Fynn. "We had lines outside our stores."

If anything, the company's launch was rather too successful, as it ran the risk early on of running out of devices. But the more surprising factor, said Fynn, was that data usage was much higher than the company had anticipated. Surfline initially expected average usage to be around 6 GB a month, but Fynn said usage is in fact around 18 GB a month.

"We were really surprised by how much data people are consuming," Fynn said.

The next steps for the company will be to cover all regions within 18 months of launch, ensure that it is able to deal with the high demand and offer customers more than just connectivity. Here, Fynn made it clear that Surfline would be partnering with other companies to offer services such as cloud-based solutions and local apps. "We are not going to build this content ourselves," she said.

That message was echoed by Tom Allen, the COO of Smile, which has so far launched LTE services in Tanzania, Uganda, and Nigeria and plans to launch services soon in the DRC.

"We work with experts in all sorts of areas," said Allen, who said partnerships are very important to his company.

"We are quite happy to be a clever pipe," Allen added. He said Smile did not want to monetise other companies' services but was happy to host them on his network. "We are there to provide a platform for other people," he said, while also building up a lean business for itself.

Initially established in 2007 as a WiMAX company, Smile launched its first LTE services in Tanzania in 2012 and makes use of 800 MHz spectrum. It offers dongle-based data-only services now, but Allen said the company would be able to offer voice over LTE (VoLTE) in the first quarter of 2015.

Alcatel-Lucent's Jaeger emphasized that the lack of legacy 2G and 3G networks is a major advantage for both Smile and Surfline: "This makes it easier for them," he said.

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