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Cell C begins countrywide roll-out of ‘4G’ network

The Cell C marketing roadshow has been touring South Africa with all the pomp and ceremony of a well-oiled touring rock band. The network, with a full complement of board members in tow, rolled into Cape Town to launch their latest offering for the peninsula, having completed the same exercise in Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein and East London during September.

The company has not managed to shake off the controversy surrounding whether or not this is actually a 4G network or not. Industry experts have acknowledged that it is probably the fastest network in South Africa to date, but questioned whether or not it is actually 4G.

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Cell C is insistent that this new network is 4G, but has softened its marketing material to state that “the new generation mobile broadband technology [is] offering speeds up to 4G’, while Cell C CEO Lars Reichelt fudged the issue by explaining that “4Gs stands for ‘4 Great Speed’ and ‘4 Great Service'”.

A search for a 4G definition on Wikipedia reveals that, technically, the network : “First release LTE is not backwards compatible with 3G, but is a pre-4G or 3.9G technology, however sometimes branded “4G” by the service providers.”

But all controversy was swept under the carpet during the marketing push. Huge buses covered with the word ‘Speed’, a fleet of taxis emblazoned with Cell C branding, pretty girls on Segways milling about and catering fit for royalty in the VIP suite of Greenpoint Stadium was the order of the day. But once all the back-slapping and snacking was over, CEO Lars Reichelt got down to business and took the assembled VIPs and media through the new offering step by step.

On paper it seems extremely impressive, with “world-leading Multi Standard Radio technology to support the HSPA+ 900 MHz network, offering data speeds capable of up to 21.6Mbps”. Reichelt pointed out that there are only 18 other ISP’s in the whole world offering this kind of network, and that Cell C is the first to offer it in Africa.

It’s an all IP network, which will deliver 21.6Mbps from Day One, ensuring a uniform experience for all customers. The “4G” network employs Release 7 software which is on par with the LTE standards being rolled out in some parts of the developed world.

In the Cape Town metropole, Cell C claims that “94% of the population is already covered by the ‘high-speed, reliable’ network”, and that the rest of the peninsula will have coverage by the end of 2010. The company is predicting that 67% of South Africa will be covered by mid-2011, and that the whole country will be covered by the end of next year.

Speed was the primary focus of the presentation. Reichelt explained to the audience that the global average speed of an internet connection is 7.94 Mbps, but in South Africa the average drops down to around 2.7 Mbps. Cell C’s new network guarantees a speed of between 5-7 Mbps for the average user, which is double as fast as users are experiencing today.

1 900 transmitters across the country are on-air, and are being tested and optimised every single day, while over 1 500 kms of optical fibre cables have been laid as well, because “good wireless networks need a good backbone”.

Once Reichelt had finished the technical part of the presentation, he explained about Cell C’s new look stores which are ‘getting better hang time’ from customers, the improved customer service, the new billing system, and the swanky new customer operation facility which is being built.

This was followed by the announcement of a very competitive launch pricing structure for the 4G network. Customers can choose between a 24GB or 60GB offer, with or without a USB Speed Stick. The 24GB package, which includes a 7.2Mbps USB Speed stick, a SIM card and 2GB of data per month over 12 months will go on sale for R1499, which translates to R125 per month, or R83 per month without the Speed Stick. The 60GB package, with a 21.6Mbps USB Speed Stick, a SIM card and 5GB of data per month will retail at R2 999, or R250 per month with the Speed Stick and R1 999, or R167p/m, without.

The CEO then went on to compare the same offering from competitors and claimed that their prices would all be above R5 000, including inferior network capability.

Finally, the symbolic launch of the high-speed network took place on the VIP balcony overlooking the hallowed turf of Green Point stadium. The assembled Cell C board members pushed a large red button, an alarm went off and, in excrutiating, ironic slo-mo, all eyes turned to see the covers slowly coming off the giant word “Speed” on the other side of the stadium. It wasn’t quite the spectacular finale the crowd was hoping for.

Nevertheless, there seems to be genuine goodwill from the public about what Cell C is doing, and how they are doing it. The CEO is refreshing and unpretentious, the discussions of challenges are frank and honest, and the Trevor Noah campaign seems to be working for them.

Let’s hope the technology that they have invested in lives up to the hype with which they are marketing it.

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