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Broadband for the people — The next generation of mobile data access

Qualcomm is one of those companies that you’ve heard of, but that few people outside of the telecommunications industry know a huge amount about. That’s not completely surprising considering its primary focus is research and development and its primary clients are big telecoms players. I chatted to James Munn, vice president of Qualcomm in South Africa, about why they’re establishing offices in Africa.

Qualcomm is the world’s largest “fabless” chip supplier. That means that it designs chips and then outsources their production to specialist chip manufacturers called foundries. Qualcomm, which was founded in 1985, has been instrumental in the development of the entire wireless communications industry. Its chips power everything from cellular base stations to 3G dongles to satellite phones.

So what are these chip design specialists doing in Africa? “When you’re spending US$2-billion in R&D, you need to understand your customers and markets,” says Munn with a wry smile. He has been in South Africa since 2007, about a year after the office was first established.

One of the office’s primary objectives right now is to assist cellphone network providers in migrating from 2G (“second generation”) technology — with its focus on voice and SMS technologies — to 3G (‘third generation”) systems which allows for the mobile broadband that we South Africans now take for granted.

Munn is careful to emphasise that Qualcomm is “vendor agnostic” – not surprising considering how many competing companies and interests its technologies support. It works with around 160 out of the world’s 260 mobile telephony OEM’s (original equipment manufacturers), and so it cares far more about the market as a whole than any particular slice of it.

And so Qualcomm’s Africa team spends its time whizzing around the continent assisting all of the largest Mobile operators and their infrastructure vendors and partners. “We’re trying to get the best training and knowledge out to the people who need it,” explains Munn, “and hoping to accelerate the ecosystem.” At the same time they are also collecting priceless intelligence and data from the field and feeding it back to the eggheads at their San Diego head office who are busy designing the next generation of chips and technologies.

He gives a concrete example of Qualcomm’s influence in South Africa: they helped MTN to set up data services for the stadiums for the Soccer World Cup last year. They have particular expertise in this area, having done the same thing for the Superbowl, the single most popular event in America’s sporting calender.

I ask a question that has been bothering me for a while: what exactly is considered 4G, and why is their so much confusion around the name? This elicits another wry smile from Munn. “4G can either be defined as a speed, set by the ITU (International Telecommunication Union), or a technology. LTE is most commonly seen as 4G because of its speed, but anything over 100MBps can be seen as 4G”.

LTE stands for “long term evolution” and, like so many telecoms acronyms, it has long ago outgrown its original meaning. Essentially it’s one of several technologies that are competing for official recognition as a 4G (“fourth generation”) standard. While it’s in the same “family” as the 3G standard currently deployed in South Africa (the 3rd Generation Partnership Project or 3GPP), it’s not so much an upgrade to 3G as a completely new technology.

This means that, while LTE is inherently much faster than ordinary 3G (100Mbps versus 7.2Mbps) it is also much more expensive to deploy. But, as Munn points out, many operators are choosing to go the “transitional” route by upgrading their current infrastructure to use HSPA+ (Evolved High-Speed Packet Access) standard. This evolution path, using their existing 3G networks, will allow speed to increase from around 7Mbps to 84Mbps and beyond.

Cell C’s recently launched broadband offering uses HSPA+ and runs at speeds of over 42Mbps. But the really exciting thing, in Munn’s eyes, is that this high speed network uses a related technology called UMTS900 which is short for “Universal Mobile Telecommunications System running on the 900Mhz frequency” (you can see why they use so many acronyms in telecoms).

Once used purely for voice calls, the 900MHz frequency band is increasingly being redeployed from GSM (an older mobile telephony standard) to UMTS. This means that, rather than having to upgrade all their base stations to run at new frequencies (such as 2.6GHz which is often used for LTE), Cell C could simply re-use their existing frequencies to run both voice and data in UMTS900. And because of the popularity of UMTS900 in Europe, it is supported by the majority of 3G handsets and modems.

UMTS900 also has other benefits that make it ideal for the African environment. The “footprint” of each cell in a UMTS900 network is much larger, so a greater area can be covered by a comparable number of masts. This makes UMTS900 up to 68% cheaper to roll out than 2.1GHz UMTS or 2.6GHz LTE, and thus more economical in sparsely populated rural areas.

Even in cities, the 900MHz frequency is much better at penetrating walls and other obstacles, which means that users enjoy better connectivity regardless of where they are in a building. This means that a densely populated area need not be blanketed by so many masts to ensure depth of coverage.

In a South African context Munn points to the work being done by mobile operators to roll out UMTS900 coverage to rural areas which have never had access to broadband of any kind before. “I’m much more excited about that idea than about the idea of an LTE hotspot in Sandton,” says Munn.

In the end, Munn is concerned mainly with sensible regional standardisation: “The standard chosen matters much less than the fact that everyone in a region agrees to harmonise around it.” He points out the huge benefits that such harmonisation brought to GSM (the mobile telephony standard that South Africa still uses for voice calls). “We harmonised, and now we have US$15 handsets.”

The alternative is a mish-mash of competing standards that change each time you cross a border, meaning your 3G dongle would work in Ghana but not Kenya, or South Africa but not Botswana. “Imagine you’re a handset procurer for a major telecom provider operating in dozens of countries. You want handsets that will work seamlessly for all your markets. A lack of standardisation makes technology more expensive for everyone, including customers”

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