Kenya’s 100 MHz Gigabit LTE: By 2015, Potentially the Most Advanced Network in the World

Update 2014 Kenya has been held back by politics around the analog shutoff but Rwanda has pressed ahead, allocating 140 MHz of prime spectrum to KT as a single operator.

Rwanda’s Patrick Nyirishema sees major savings
Only the best engineers believe mobile will reach a gigabit (shared) in the next few years, with individual speeds often 100 megabits and caps 50 times as high as today. Ericsson drove around Stockholm connected at 900 megabits/second in this video. Even seeing isn’t believing. Urban areas in the developed world will rarely see those speeds in early years because most spectrum is restricted and only available in 20 MHz bands.  But Africa, Pakistan and some in Latin America are seizing the opportunity.

   Kenya is the most advanced. They plan to leapfrog Europe to the gigabit by extracting 100 MHz bands from the digital dividend and other empty spectrum.  The politics is murky: one regulator was recently displaced, another overruled by the President when he tried to reduce Safaricom’s termination rates. The funding and cost of the analog switchoff are making headlines that suggest some very bad planning or worse.

  But the logic of building a single advanced network is so strong that Rwanda is considering following what’s now being called the “Kenyan model.” Jennie Bourne and I spoke with Patrick Nyirishema of the Rwanda Development Board at the Broadband Commission. Nyirishema acknowledged the technical advantages of the single network and pointed to crucial cost advantages as well. Much of the country is too poor or sparsely settled to be attractive to mobile operators. The government will have to find the resources to extend coverage. Building a single network requires less subsidy than helping two or three operators. The network is cheaper to build if it has more spectrum.

insert video

   The “Kenyan model” selects a single operator to build and manage the 100 MHz network. That operator would have to “unbundle” the offering, allowing other carriers to resell the service and compete on features and at the retail level. France and Britain proved unbundling works well for consumers when backed by a strong regulator that keeps prices down. Building three to five overlapping networks certainly makes competition sharper, but is extremely costly.

Rwanda’s Patrick Nyirishema sees major savings
Only the best engineers believe mobile will reach a gigabit (shared) in the next few years, with individual speeds often 100 megabits and caps 50 times as high as today. Ericsson drove around Stockholm connected at 900 megabits/second in this video. Even seeing isn’t believing. Urban areas in the developed world will rarely see those speeds in early years because most spectrum is restricted and only available in 20 MHz bands.  But Africa, Pakistan and some in Latin America are seizing the opportunity.

   Kenya is the most advanced. They plan to leapfrog Europe to the gigabit by extracting 100 MHz bands from the digital dividend and other empty spectrum.  The politics is murky: one regulator was recently displaced, another overruled by the President when he tried to reduce Safaricom’s termination rates. The funding and cost of the analog switchoff are making headlines that suggest some very bad planning or worse.

  But the logic of building a single advanced network is so strong that Rwanda is considering following what’s now being called the “Kenyan model.” Jennie Bourne and I spoke with Patrick Nyirishema of the Rwanda Development Board at the Broadband Commission. Nyirishema acknowledged the technical advantages of the single network and pointed to crucial cost advantages as well. Much of the country is too poor or sparsely settled to be attractive to mobile operators. The government will have to find the resources to extend coverage. Building a single network requires less subsidy than helping two or three operators. The network is cheaper to build if it has more spectrum.

insert video

   The “Kenyan model” selects a single operator to build and manage the 100 MHz network. That operator would have to “unbundle” the offering, allowing other carriers to resell the service and compete on features and at the retail level. France and Britain proved unbundling works well for consumers when backed by a strong regulator that keeps prices down. Building three to five overlapping networks certainly makes competition sharper, but is extremely costly.

   The disadvantage is the creation of a monopoly which can be abused without good regulation. In the U.S., we’re currently seeing the effects of having only two landline competitors and a weak regulator. Broadband prices in the U.S. have typically gone up 15-35% at most carriers while going down in most other parts of the world. Pricing and bundles in telecom are so complicated you can select data to come to almost any conclusion, but in general U.S. prices are 30-60% higher than England, France, and perhaps Germany. Several East Asian nations are even cheaper.

   Robert Pepper of Cisco is particularly concerned with weakening competition. Pepper, a friend, is one of the most admired policy people in the world. Everyone looks to him for ideas; I noticed Carlos Slim of Telmex, the richest man in the world, respectfully walk over to ask his opinion at the Broadband Commission.  Pepper was the key force at the U.S. FCC when six national wireless networks seeking customers drove U.S. rates lower than almost everyone else. In much of Africa, intense competition is unlikely and other solutions may be best.

   The technology is clear even if the politics are murky. LTE Advanced, now beginning to ship, is designed to deliver a gigabit over a 100 MHz block. The previous LTE was limited to 20 MHz. Five times the MHz yields substantially more than five times the bandwidth. Dividing 100 MHz into 5 or 10 slices, the current system, wastes perhaps 30-50% of the capacity. Inevitably, even at peak times, some of the companies are overloaded while others have unused capacity. Sharing the whole band eliminates that issue and also reduces the need for “guard bands” unused between carriers.

   Alcatel has played a crucial role, providing the technical vision that’s inspiring African policymakers to innovate.    

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to top