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CDMA's African Goals

By Sara Frewen

Several forms of CDMA have been introduced in Africa. The progress of cdmaOne, however, has been hindered by the aggressive deployment of GSM on the continent. Even Telecel International, which pioneered CDMA in Africa, has changed sides. In Zambia the CDMA equipment deployed in the capital of Lusaka in 1997 is being replaced and rollout expanded to Lusaka and the Copperbelt.

"It was purely a political decision," says Michel Tsumbu, Telecel International's Africa director in business development. "The Zambian government decided in May 1998 to comply with the Southern African Development Community (SADC) conditions to deploy GSM in the area and the rest of Africa is likely to follow suit."

Most mobile deployment in the continent involves subscriber numbers well below those of South Africa. Even Egypt, where subscriber numbers recently passed the million mark, is way behind South Africa which has well over four million subscribers on its two GSM networks. In fact, some experts believe that the South African market is large enough to make cdmaOne a viable proposition.

Business plan
A bidding consortium for the country's much-delayed third cellular license, AfricaSpeaks, has opted for the CDMA route for rural areas combined with GSM 1800 for urban areas, in its business plan. If the plan is successful, it could help to introduce over one million future subscribers to CDMA.

The consortium compared the South African environmental conditions to those of Australia in defending its choice of technology. In October, 1998, Australian operator Telstra,with the backing of the country's Federal Government, confirmed its commitment to build a replacement for the country's analog (AMPS) network. It also announced that the new network would be based on cdmaOne technology. Offered to more Australians than any other digital technology, cdmaOne service is expected to reach 95 percent of Australians with both its cdmaOne wireless local loop and cellular systems.

Telstra's decision followed an extensive research and evaluation process of the available mobile network technologies against a range of set criteria. Testing of the CDMA network occurred in a variety of terrain and environments across Australia.

As many current analog customers live in country locations, a direct comparison was conducted between CDMA and analog phones in rural Victoria. Over three individual tests, CDMA outperformed analog in terms of voice quality and in two of the three tests, CDMA provided greater coverage than its analog counterpart.

A separate test of the network's performance was conducted in a marine setting. In this instance, successful CDMA calls were made over water at distances in excess of 130km from the test base station.

Enhanced service
Dave Kimber, technology executive

While cdmaOne mobile cellular has so far had a limited impact in Africa there has been some success in the use of cdmaOne for wireless local loop applications; WLL is a popular alternative to copper in rural areas where cable is slow to roll out and often expensive. Mauritius is the success story on the continent in this regard. Mauritius Telecom contracted Qualcomm (now Ericsson) to supply and install a cdmaOne WLL network to initially add 50,000 subscribers to Mauritius Telecom's digital wireline network.

Mauritius, however, has the distinct advantage that is relatively stable economically and politically, benefiting rollout and revenues for operators. In the somewhat less predictable Nigerian market, cdmaOne WLL systems have been commercially launched and Qualcomm has been commissioned to supply 10,000 lines for Starcomms. It is uncertain what impact cdmaOne will make in the long term.

Trial systems using cdmaOne WLL are still ongoing elsewhere in the continent through Telecel International in the Democratic Republic of Congo, ARENTO and Telecom Egypt in Egypt and Intercellular in Nigeria.

Often, however, the monopolistic PTTs are blamed for the trial stages not progressing to commercial deployment. As Michel Tsumbu explains: "They just refuse to open their doors to new technologies". South Africa is a typical example. The PTT, Telkom, has shown little interest in deploying cdmaOne for WLL and aims to hit its deployment target of 2.7 million lines by the year 2002 with the aid of DECT technology.

The other problem facing cdmaOne operators in Africa is competition from proprietary CDMA systems, for example from Granger Telecom and Airspan, both of which claim to offer cheaper roll-outs and more cost-effective means of providing enhanced services than their non-proprietary counter-parts. This may, however, be due to network size. "cdmaOne does not scale well down to small networks, for example for those less than 10,000 subscribers. Consequently small opportunities may well be more suitable for the proprietary WLL systems," says Kimber. As an example of the sort of cdmaOne WLL network he is referring to, one need only look at the fairly large-scale Mahanagar Telephone Nigam cdmaOne WLL operation in India.

Airspan announced in October 1999 a contract with Mobitel, a Nigerian operator, to provide its AS4000 broadband CDMA systems for 4,500 high-quality residential and business telephone lines. The company, which already has Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire signed up, aims at becoming a major player in the African CDMA WLL telecoms arena.

Another WLL system, from Granger Telecom and called a CDMA/CD2000 WLL system, was implemented in Port Sudan in Tanzania with 300 lines as from August 1999. Experts believe it is too early yet to evaluate the systems as none of them have been trialed for a long period of time.

The next technological step world-wide by all major associations will be the migration to third generation CDMA-most likely WCDMA, given the influence of GSM, unless a harmonized solution is agreed. But in Africa will it be evolutionary or revolutionary?

"We believe that Africa will only gradually move from GSM to G3G technology and do so in an orderly manner," says Andre Szczesniak, senior analyst from ABN-AMRO. "We are not likely to see major technological discontinuities, one of the main reasons being that G3G has been designed with the objective of enabling users to explore datacoms in the mobile market. Of course," he adds, "in Africa as elsewhere in the world, demand for such services exists and is growing rapidly. Yet, unlike the developed parts of the world a simple phone call still often appears to be a luxury in African countries." South Africa will be the exception as it boasts over 70 percent of current Internet users in Africa and, with its strong imterest in new technologies, will probably demand earlier migration to G3G.

Stumbling block
Another stumbling block to the introduction of the technology will be cost; G3G is not likely to be cheap-at least initially. "We believe that most operators in Africa will tend to exploit standards such as GSM before opting for more advanced solutions," adds Szczesniak. As second generation networks mature and take-up of mobile services increases, the cost of the simple phone call is likely to be reduced, making migration to 3G more feasible.

"From the GSM operators' point of view it is equally unlikely there will be a mad rush to develop to G3G as the greater cost in the form of new capital expenditure will initially reduce profitability and returns to the investors. It Is therefore more likely that African mobile operators will only gradually introduce G3G and at first adopt the selective customer migration approach," said Szczesniak.

In summary then, while mobile cdmaOne could have missed the boat in Africa and European preferences may dictate the path to 3G, opportunities still exist in WLL. Other proprietary technologies may make inroads but cdmaOne with 35 million customers world-wide (and counting) could still have some surprises in store.