4G/LTE always gets people in telecoms excited, and for good reason. Faster connections and efficient networks are everything. Even though it has been singled out globally as the mobile tech advancement that should come front and centre in a mobile world that will be all about better mobile internet, the uptake of 4G on the local front is still very premature.
While the increase of telecoms subscribers that we have been experiencing in the past half decade might have slowed, the investment in infrastructure is still a big focus for Zimbabwe’s mobile network operators. At least that was a clear indication from the latest POTRAZ Quarterly Report.
According to the communications industry regulator, base station construction activity in the third quarter of 2014 resulted in 75 new 2G base stations, 40 new 3G base stations and 2 new LTE base stations. Zimbabwe registered 3,284 2G base stations and 1,300 3G base stations.
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Econet owns the largest spread of infrastructure across 2G, 3G bases stations and in the third quarter it owned all 19 LTE base stations in Zimbabwe.
It’s worth noting that NetOne introduced LTE in the city of Bulawayo in the last part of the year. The infrastructure sharing model hasn’t been put into practice so its safe to assume this was NetOne’s own investment which wasn’t captured in this report.
The focus though is still clearly on 2G and 3G connections which has always been justified by the need for primary mobile connections and improving basic coverage, something that every mobile network is trying to address.
Interestingly though 4G/LTE wasn’t as huge focus for all three networks (2 new base stations isn’t focus enough). This is influenced by factors like the huge cost of investment in this infrastructure versus the return from the limited usage.
In the same quarter there were only 601 LTE internet subscriptions and underlying all of this is the fact that 4G tech is only compatible with high end devices that haven’t made a huge impact on the market. So for now this is limited to certain access clusters.
Cities that have this partial cover are Harare (at 5 specific spots and in the Msasa area where Econet is head quartered), Bulawayo(Econet lists 5 spots, NetOne hasn’t given out info on its coverage) and Victoria Falls (5 spots that were selected during the UNWTO Summit back in 2013).
All of this hasn’t been focused on mobile though. Econet, with the widest presence of 4G, is offering the service through 4G/LTE dongles as an option for desktop and laptop access. NetOne however did come out offering it for mobile devices.
Should we forget about LTE entirely in Zimbabwe for now?
Just recently we learnt that after a lot of politicking and bureaucratic back and forth NetOne was finally granted the first allotment of a $200 million loan extension that was guaranteed by the Chinese government.
The loan facility is meant to kick-start a network expansion drive for the State owned mobile network. In addition to giving NetOne an improvement of existing infrastructure, part of this will be the extension of NetOne’s LTE service.
With funds secured for this exercise (the huge cost of LTE is always an issue) this could be the huge leap NetOne will take to expand local LTE infrastructure. Together with Econet Wireless that has started advertising its LTE service again (it could be an expansion drive in the horizon) and has after all been working on LTE to some extent, it will happen, although not as fast as we would expect.
Telecel hasn’t joined the LTE discussion yet. the logical guess is that this will only happen after the company handles its housekeeping in the areas of ownership and licencing. Any investments in infrastructure can only follow this.
The slow investment into 4G/LTE says a lot about when we can expect it in our neighbourhoods For now it looks like uptake is going to be slow, until there is bigger market for the use of the service.
Since internet in Zimbabwe is largely mobile this will depend on factors like smartphone uptake and 4G access from lower priced devices. Perhaps the shared infrastructure proposals will spur its rollout but that still seems like a long shot.