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Small cells add to last mile mix

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NEC aims to deploy LTE small cells alongside SA's operators.
NEC aims to deploy LTE small cells alongside SA's operators.

SA's increasingly data-hungry Internet users, who have high expectations of connectivity quality, could spur an increase in long-term evolution (LTE) small cell technology to meet the country's last mile challenges.

The current connectivity economy has led to increased investments in WiFi and fibre-optic networks by both public and private sector players, with more people coming online and pressure growing to improve the quality for connected users.

Eugene Le Roux, NEC Africa MD, notes small cells can alleviate the pressure on cellular networks' base stations, while expanding the LTE footprint in congested business or residential areas.

"Limited bandwidth and spectrum makes it difficult to improve the situation by deploying 'traditional' radio access network infrastructure," he says. Although he did not name specific companies, Le Roux adds NEC is engaging local operators to pursue small cell deployment throughout SA.

NEC describes small cells as the "new last mile" and the company aims to play a central role in their deployment, as operators address growing data demand.

Taking responsibility

In Johannesburg, numerous neighbourhood associations have taken matters into their own hands amid a lack of reliable connectivity, hiring companies to deploy high-speed fibre-optic networks to their homes.

Parkhurst, Craighall Park and Parkview residents have been some of the first to pursue the option, with the former recently opening the first trenches for the project.

According to Philip Wessels, channel executive at Hymax Technologies, open access infrastructure providers will positively impact the country's last mile landscape, with fibre-optics infrastructure leading the charge. "SA has been deprived of high-speed quality access to Internet and this can largely be blamed on the state of the last mile, which, until recently, has all been based on legacy copper infrastructure," he says.

Meanwhile, as operators vie for network superiority, MTN recently announced it is deploying antennas on street light poles around Johannesburg, to improve network coverage and quality, while Vodacom says it will invest R1 billion to boost its network in the province.

Vodacom is also growing its LTE footprint in the province, with 600 new sites going live by April next year. This will up the operator's LTE coverage in Gauteng from 25% of sites to 38%. SA's biggest network also aims to increase Gauteng's 3G coverage in major townships, adding over 400 new 3G sites by the end of March next year.

Vodacom and MTN are refarming spectrum to provide LTE services, putting additional pressure on their 3G networks. Until government allocates the high-demand spectrum required for LTE, the operators remain hamstrung in significantly growing new generation wireless technology.

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