South African wireless broadband faces a boost

Von Nicolas Callegari

Last week saw Icasa granting a consortium of communications companies a demonstration licence to implement a pilot of a new CDMA2000 technology, which aims to provide a low-cost, high bandwidth wireless broadband alternative to current market offerings.

Qualcomm, Transtel, MTN and Ericsson joined forces with a number of other institutions, including the CSIR and Wits University, to demonstrate the various applications of the technology, and to talk about how it could make for affordable wireless broadband Internet access.

At the demonstration, Icasa councillor, Zolisa Masiza, said that it is a key issue for Icasa to be flexible in order to encourage investment in the local communications market. ?We are always under huge pressure to help reduce the costs associated with communications in SA, in particular for under-serviced areas,? he says. ?And to this extent we are always willing and able to investigate new and cost-effective technologies.?

Icasa?s grant of a demonstration licence will see the various communications companies using the current pilot CDMA2000

1xEV-DO installation for applications ranging from content delivery, to telemedicine, distance education and high speed Internet access, to name a few.

Code division multiple access (CDMA2000) 1xEV-DO is a data-optimized evolution of the existing CDMA2000, which provides multi-megabit peak rates and average rates of hundreds of kilobits per second.

According to Ericsson, a higher data rate is an increasingly important factor, as wireless services become richer in content, which could lower the cost per megabit.

The lower cost per megabit could enable potential CDMA service providers in SA to extend services at a much more affordable rate than what is currently available through the likes of Vodacom 3G, Sentech MyWireless, WBS iBurst and Telkom ADSL.

?It is also a very viable fixed-line alternative,? comments Qualcomm senior business development manager, Sachin Bhatmuley, ?because voice and data services can be delivered through the same channel, without having to lay additional copper cable.?

Ericsson?s vice-president of customer solutions, Thomas Sonesson, adds that the CDMA 1xEV-DO will help to address the chronic telecoms challenges in Africa such as low fixed-line and mobile penetration, the lack of true broadband services and the notoriously high cost of telecoms services.

According to Qualcomm, a similar roll-out in India saw a dramatic reduction in communications costs for low-income earners, to as low as eight tenths of a US cent per minute.

At current exchange rates, that is around R0.47 (US$0.08) per minute, which by local standards is much cheaper than Telkom off-peak rates. But, according to Bhatmuley, it all depends on what packages the service providers will offer should the technology be licensed.

For example, Verizon Communications Inc. offers ?all-you-can-eat? packages with unlimited MB per month at around $70 (R399) per month. Vodacom Group PLC?s 3G offering currently limits local users to 1GB for R599, but additional GBs can be purchased.

Nothing is set in concrete regarding the roll-out of the technology in SA, as it will use the 800MHz primary broadcast spectrum, and this is only a temporary demonstration licence.

However, if Icasa agrees to license the use of the technology locally, we could see massive benefits offered to the average South African who has had no access to telecoms service before, or to higher end-users, who may use the technology for a number of different applications.