Vodacom?s big plans

Von Sean Bacher

Vodacom Group (Pty) Ltd., in conjunction with Vodafone Group PLC, has recently launched SA?s first 3G network.

?It is about time Vodacom hopped onto the broadband bandwagon,? says Pieter Uys, MD of Vodacom. ?For years our customers have been accessing data over GSM at a painstakingly slow speed of 9.6kbps, and, more recently, through GPRS. Albeit GPRS is a cheaper medium on which to transfer data, it still is not quite as cost-effective as people would like, especially when transferring large amounts of data, and it does not reach the speeds that a lot of South Africans require,? he says.

?We decided to bring in European telecoms operator Vodafone?s expertise whilst setting up the 3G network, as Vodafone has already done all the research in Europe and knows exactly what consumers are looking for. Setting up the network in SA was merely a matter of replication,? continues Uys.

Vodacom?s initial offering to the local market is its 3G One package. This, according to the company, includes everything a user would need to wirelessly surf the ?Net, place video calls and download e-mails over the 3G network. It includes a 3G/GPRS data card which will operate on any 3G enabled cell phone, a PCMCIA card for a notebook, and up to 1GB of data transfer per month.

?At the moment we only offer the 3G One package, which allows for up to 1GB of data transfer per month. Should users surpass the 1GB cap, they will be charged an additional R10 (US$1.66) per MB,? he says. However, Uys does go on to comment that 1GB is a lot of data to transfer, and that research done by Vodafone overseas showed that 1GB of data throughput was more than enough for most users. ?Also, when purchasing the contract, companies and users do have the option of upgrading to 2GB or even 3GB packages,? says Uys.

?We have also come to realize that not all users will use the 3G network to download their e-mail and browse the Internet -- thus rendering the initial purchase of 1GB of data transfer a bit of an overkill,? he comments. ?To cater for these users Vodacom will be releasing other 3G packages at cheaper rates, but allowing for much less data transfer,? says Uys.

Uys goes on to say that to make the entire 3G package more enticing to the local market, Vodacom opted to make video calls over the 3G network the same price as standard voice calls. ?Most overseas telecoms operators video call tariffs are much higher than voice calls and this, coupled with a monthly contract charge, is rather high. Seeing as we are charging our customers the R599 per month, we decided to make the video calls the same price as voice calls, in other words users will be paying about two rand per minute per video call,? he says.

To date, Vodacom claims to have upgraded 473 of its cell masts to support 3G, around Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town, and is planning on upgrading the rest around the country in the near future. Uys says that users using the 3G network need not worry about coverage because if they move to an area that is not covered by the 3G network, their connection will automatically roll back and use GPRS for data transfer. ?This will not cost the user anything extra, in fact the only indication that the user is using GPRS instead of 3G is that data transfer will be far slower,? continues Uys.

Towards the end of this year Vodacom is planning to roll out 3.5G. ?With 3.5G, we are implementing high speed download packet access (HSDPA),? says Uys. ?This is merely a software upgrade we make to our masts and once it has been implemented it improves the packet modulation. The end result is that users will experience an increase in data transfer speeds from the current 348kbps to a maximum of 8Mbps,? he concludes.