African mobile operators struggle with network quality

Their issues pit them against regulators who are demanding improvements

By , IDG News Service |  Networking

Africa's mobile operators are contending with capital and operational demands, pressure from shareholders for higher returns and a lack of sufficient spectrum to address the needs of evolving technology, all of which is creating conflict with regulators over the quality of service.

Regulators in sub-Saharan Africa's leading economies such as Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Ivory Coast and Uganda, among others, have raised issues over the quality of service provided by mobile operators, insisting that it does not meet the 80 percent satisfaction threshold usually stipulated in the license.

Kenya is the latest country to issue threats of license cancellation if the 80 percent minimum is not met. In a report released earlier this month by the Communications Commission of Kenya, none of the operators had met the threshold. Telkom Kenya had the highest quality-of-service score of 62.5 percent; Airtel Kenya, Essar Kenya and Safaricom Kenya managed 50 percent.

In most countries, operators have deployed 2G networks for voice, have begun deploying 3G (and subsequent improved iterations like HSPA+), and are now moving into 4G for pure data, fixed wireless and fixed fiber market segments, which demands more capital and operational expenditure.

"It is often difficult just to focus on improving or maintaining high quality of the network and services delivered, as other aspects may suffer. For example, if most of the budget is spent on maintaining quality, network expansion may suffer, or new service development may suffer, or investor returns will suffer," said Dobek Pater, managing director at Africa Analysis.

One of the major issues raised is the unavailability of spectrum to push new services and the formulae used in allocation of GSM spectrum. In Kenya, the GSM band is divided equally among the four players, yet Safaricom has the largest market share, an issue raised with the regulator on several occasions.

"The regulator has exercised the principle of equality in spectrum which means that irrespective of the subscriber numbers we all have access to the same share of spectrum in terms of quantum of allocation. It is our position that a new spectrum policy needs to be developed by the Ministry and regulator to take into account the current market scenario, the increased emphasis on QoS and the need for Kenya to embrace new technologies like 4G," said Nzioka Waita, Safaricom corporate affairs director.

The CCK has insisted that it is possible for operators to meet the QoS threshold with the available spectrum and proper management of radio equipment and traffic.

"Networks around the world are able to support higher subscriber base with the spectrum equivalent to what we have issued to operators and to also support other users such as Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs)," said Francis Wangusi, CCK director general.

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