Vodacom becomes the first operator to switch on an LTE network on the continent

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Vodacom has switched on its Long Term Evolution (LTE) trial network in Midrand, and becomes the first operator into the ring with this new mobile data technology. It has predictably high test speeds but even the scaled back estimated operational speeds are a jump away from current rates. Furthermore, the technology may be able to be tweaked to offer signal over longer distances.

Unlike many test networks the Vodacom LTE network - which uses Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN) gear - is fully integrated with its current 3G/HSDPA network and uses the same spectrum.

According to a report by MyBoadband, the Vodacom trial LTE network has a theoretical downlink speed of 150 Mbps and a theoretical uplink speed of 100 Mbps, but Vodacom CTO Andries Delport pointed out that the actual speed which people experience on their wireless networks will be reliant on factors like the distance from the base station.

It should also be said that actual speeds will also depend on how many users there are on the base station and the volumes they are downloading. Actual operating speeds are more likely to be between 5-12 mbps for downloads and 2-5 mbps for uploads. These are clearly some distance from existing technologies (including WiMAX) but have yet to be delivered on a fully populated network.

The demo LTE dongle, provided by Samsung, proved to be a further bottleneck, only providing maximum downlink speeds of 100 Mbps and a maximum uplink speed of 50 Mbps. Real soon now, Samsung is planning to release a dongle that will have backward compatibility with HSPA and EDGE.

In live testing peak downlink speeds of over 70 Mbps were achieved, while uplink speeds of around 30 Mbps were seen. There was also only a latency of 14 ms which is much lower than HSPA and HSPA+.

But if the network is ready, handsets are not. The first LTE Multi Mode Smart phones are not expected to arrive before the end of 2010.

Of interest to those either living in remote areas in Africa or wishing to serve them is a test carried out by vendor NSN between two mountains in Australia. It discovered that it could operate over a distance of 75 kms and still achieve a download speed of 100 mbps in the 2.6 MHz band using “pre-commercial dongles".

According to a Telstra spokesman: "We had to make some software and configuration changes [in the network, not the device]." However, Telstra has confirmed that it had already modified GSM and CDMA networks to work at extended ranges, but said that the technical limit was around 100km.

The challenge in reaching Africa’s remote and sparsely populated areas is how to reach them from existing and planned fibre networks without satellite. This may prove to be another tool that might help in that process.