Liberia: Cellcom rolls out HSPA+ network and gains a technology edge over its competitors

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On June 21st, Cellcom officially launched its HSPA+ services at a ceremony attended by a crowd of over 400 VIPs. For a day, Monrovia’s City Hall was decorated with Cellcom’s red and white flags and banners with the slogan “4G The First. The Fastest”. Isabelle Gross, who attended the event, looks at what it takes for a small mobile operation to launch a new 4G network and, at the commercial potential that becoming the technology leader in the data market may bring.

One thing is for sure: no mobile operator is ever 100% ready when it comes to rolling out a new network based on a new technology. Cellcom is no exception to this rule, but a combination of technical, commercial and human elements gave the company and its CEO, Avishai Marziano, enough confidence to decide that now was the time to go to market. Cellcom’s HSPA+ network is provided by the Chinese telecommunications company ZTE. For now the network covers Monrovia and greater Monrovia as well as Buchanan in Grand Bassa county. Cellcom plans to further expand its 4G network coverage along the main axis from Monrovia to the border with Guinea (Kakata, Banga and Ganta). In order to get this level of coverage, dozens of BTSs had to be fitted with new 4G equipment, while at the same time new BTSs have been built to further strengthen the signal of the 4G network. The power requirements of each BTS had to be reviewed too in order to cope with the additional load coming from the new 4G equipment. At the same time the new core network was being set up and tested and the new 4G equipment on the BTSs had to “go on air”. Connecting the BTSs require a lot of tweaking and radio optimisation but what’s more important is that the existing 2G network and the new 4G network had to work together seamlessly.

As the technical team was busying itself getting the new network up and running, the marketing department was engaged in building a commercial strategy and marketing plan about the new data services and devices that Cellcom would offer at- and post-launch. This was all about defining which market segments to target, what data packs to offer, how to price them, and above all how to communicate all this to mobile users and Liberians at large. So, for example, alongside a new range of 4G data bundles, Cellcom has introduced “out of bundle” data billing, which allows customers to stay online just a little more to let them finish what they are doing. It also works as a 12¢ per MB “pay as you go” option for customers who don’t want to buy a data bundle.

Building a consistent data offering is only the first step in the process, as these data offers need to be integrated in the prepaid billing system. Least but not last, the people need to be trained up to deal with the new system. Rolling out a more advanced mobile technology implies a lot of training for the technical staff to make sure that they understand all the technical aspects of the new network and ensure that it will be up and running 24/7. Non-technical personnel such as sales and customer support staff also need to learn the ins and outs of the new 4G data devices and services. At the end of the day, it was the sum of each employee’s inputs that got Cellcom’s new baby up and running. The days up to the launch were especially hard for the person at the top who like a maestro had to get the whole orchestra to play in tune.

Mobile telephony is a technology-driven business. Rolling out HPSA+ has given Cellcom a technology edge over its competitors as well as the means to poach their high ARPU customers. When it comes to mobile phones, these users are likely to be the owner of an iPhone, a Samsung Galaxy or a Blackberry smartphone. They might also have an iPad or a Galaxy tablet. To get the most from these devices high-end customers need access to a 3G, HSPA network or above. Connecting such devices to the Internet through a GPRS/Edge network is “slow slow” as Liberians would put it. Mobile data users across the world do not want their experience to be ruined by lethargic network performance and Liberian mobile users are no exception. Cellcom’s HSPA+ network is impressively quick, allowing me to watch a Youtube video on my HTC mobile phone without any buffering

In a country that has hardly any fixed lines and therefore no competing broadband Internet technologies like ADSL+,  cable or fibre, rolling out a network that offers a download data speed of up to 21Mbps and an upload speed up to 5.8Mbps has wider commercial potential than just providing fast Internet access to smartphone owners. There is a growing variety of both mobile and fixed 4G devices that data users can choose from to fulfil their data access requirements. Alongside smartphones, Cellcom is also for example offering 4G USB dongles, hotspots (nomadic) and 4G routers (fixed) with the aim to tap into “the fixed wireless” broadband segment. HSPA+ data speed compares very well with WiMAX data speed and is far superior to what CDMA technology can offer. Furthermore, the evolution path of HSPA technology is already set providing Cellcom and mobile operators at large with a clear roadmap of what data speed they can except to sell in the coming years.

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