Township demand drives mobile innovation

By Gugu Lourie

With revenues from voice telephone services in decline – owing to more people opting for cheaper message services – South African mobile phone companies are becoming more innovative as they position themselves to tackle changes in demand.

Demand for data is increasing as more South Africans get connected through their low-cost smartphones. The development means that operators have to find new ways to connect users to their “quality and bigger” networks.

On 23 April, MTN SA revealed that its data usage had surged by 62.6%, while data users rose 18.1% to 17.2m in the three months to end March 2015.

In February, Vodacom SA announced that its data traffic was up 62.2% and active data customers had increased to 16.8m (53.4% of its active customers).

Clearly, mobile data is growing faster than voice services. More users are now able to connect to the operators’ data networks without hassles.

However, township residents generally complain that mobile phone networks are very slow in their areas, saying that operators are unable to accommodate their appetite for mobile data.

For years mobile phone operators have neglected infrastructure upgrades in townships, affecting the quality of services they provide in these areas.

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With MTN SA subscriber growth muted in the quarter to end March 2015, Vodacom looks set to take advantage of the rapid growth of mobile data usage in the townships.

To position itself in the townships and benefit from the uptake of low-cost smart devices including smartphones and tablets, Vodacom has decided to upgrade network infrastructure in townships in a move aimed at addressing growing demand for mobile data in a quality network.

The country’s biggest mobile phone company is eyeing potential revenues in the townships, where data traffic volume growth is running well ahead of the average growth rate countrywide.

The operator has unveiled a pilot project in Alexandra township, Johannesburg, which will help solve the problem of unavailability of space to host base stations in such areas. In Alexandra, Vodacom retrofitted a compact base station to the roof of a shipping container, which houses a shop.

This move enables Vodacom to roll out new base station sites within weeks as opposed to the typical 12-18 month lead time it normally takes to build new sites.VDC-Container3

Vodacom said such base stations, mounted on containers, provide mobile coverage over a radius of up to 1.5km and can service as many as 5 000 subscribers at peak times. As part of its pilot project, Vodacom plans to roll-out five base stations.

Vodacom’s chief technology officer Andries Delport, who is clearly excited by the pilot project, says: “The shops located in containers typically sell airtime, m-pesa and telephone services. With a base station located on their roof, we’ll support the shop with an additional source of income and they in turn provide us with added site security. It makes us part of the community.”

Delport adds: “We’re seeing data volumes in Gauteng’s townships almost doubling year-on-year, which is well ahead of the average growth rate countrywide. Identifying and building new sites to cater for this in densely populated areas has been difficult and on top of that, site security can be an issue.”

A typical base station site takes up to about 30m2, which consists of a mast of about 2m2. Given space limitation in densely populated townships, it is convenient to build base stations on these containers.

While Vodacom is targeting more customers with its innovative base stations in the township, MTN last year won a tender from the City of Johannesburg’s municipal entity, City Power, to turn lamp posts into mobile phone base stations. MTN is entitled to convert 110 000 lamp posts in the city into mini-masts or broadband towers.

So far, the operator has deployed two such towers in Bryanston, Johannesburg. But the project has been placed on hold after residents complained they were not consulted, citing environmental legislation and bylaws relating to tower mast health and safety.

Mobile phone operators have to find new, better and quicker ways to connect growing numbers of township-based data customers.

The question remains whether affected township residents will accept these innovations.

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