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MTN to launch 4G before year-end

Ultra-fast network to be available in three cities to start.

JOHANNESBURG – MTN (JSE:MTN) will launch commercial 4G (Long Term Evolution) services in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban before the end of the year. The 4G network will be capable of download speeds of anywhere from 2Mbps to 66Mbps. Currently the operator has 250 LTE-ready sites (mostly in Gauteng), and it will have 400-500 base stations enabled for 4G by the end of the year. The launch of these services will be focused on specific areas of the three cities.

Currently the operator has 250 LTE-ready sites (mostly in Gauteng), and it will have 400-500 base stations enabled for 4G by the end of the year. The launch of these services will be focused on specific areas of the three cities.

MTN is pushing ahead to launch 4G, despite any clarity from the Department of Communications and Icasa around the allocation of additional spectrum in the 800Mhz and 2.6Ghz bands – a process that has dragged on for years. Chief technical officer of MTN South Africa Kanagaratnam Lambotharan says MTN will “refarm” (re-allocate) spectrum in the 1800Mhz band which it currently uses for other services. It has been running a trial of 4G services in Gauteng using around 100 sites from July 2011.

Lambotharan says that even without access to the additional spectrum, it made sense to launch 4G services now. The “momentum” is there, he said, with reference to the iPhone 5 which supports LTE and is set to launch in South Africa in the coming months. He admitted that “refarming” spectrum for use by LTE was “not ideal”, but was needed until the “longer-term spectrum issues are sorted out”.

The group has also been somewhat hampered by back-haul capacity (the network connecting its base stations) which it has rapidly been shifting over to its own fibre ring in Gauteng. This has also meant speed improvements on these base stations for 3G services, especially where there were capacity constraints. Nearly 1 100 of the group’s base stations in South Africa (the majority in Gauteng) are now connected via fibre.

MTN says 4G services are “unlikely” to launch in Cape Town in the immediate future, due to “challenges” around spectrum in the city. Cell C faced similar challenges when it rolled out its HSPA+ network in the Mother City. Its fibre build-out in the city is also not as advanced as the Gauteng ring.

MTN sees its 4G services being comparable to and “benchmarked” against existing ADSL fixed broadband offerings in the market.

Well-placed sources have confirmed to Moneyweb that rival Vodacom will also launch 4G services in the coming months.

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