Gambia’s Unique Solutions will launch national WiMAX network to meet new demand from ACE fibre cable launch

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One of Gambia’s leading corporate ISP providers Unique Solutions has bought Pure Wave’s 16e WiMAX solution to meet the up-coming demand from the opening of the ACE international cable. The latter will provide Gambia’s first international cable landing station and it will be run by a consortium of operators rather than by the incumbent telco. Russell Southwood looks at what’s happening in Gambia and at the kinds of choices open to insurgent challenger ISPs.

The majority of Unique Solutions’ business, according to CEO Papa Njiye, is financial services customers and one of the motivations for putting in place a WiMAX network is the need for a redundant network. It will give between 90-95% national coverage through 40 base stations.

The current network uses Motorola Canopy. For customer CPEs it will use Green Packet. The first phase of the network is 11 base stations to cover the greater Banjul area and the second phase will take place over the next couple of months. It decided not to go the LTE route for cost reasons but Pure Wave says there will be an LTE upgrade path.

It currently has around 500 customers in the banking, energy, oil and gas sectors. According to Njiaye:”About 15-20% of our customers are home users but historically there has not been enough bandwidth to service a large number of them. We will be able to add more home clients when the cable arrives. We will also start offering USB dongles and Mi-Fi devices.”

Currently, the CPE for a home installation is around US$150 and end-user bandwidth costs are as follows: 128 kbps ( US$42.60); 256 kbps (US$79.12) and 512 kbps ( US$120). The members of the landing station consortium who will sell the wholesale bandwidth have decided but not yet confirmed prices publicly:”We think prices should come down immediately and if that happens, you will see a price change for the end user.” 

Current prices are between US$631-760 per meg, depending on volume, in other words six times the price found elsewhere in West Africa. Consortium members are sitting on the fence about making a major price reduction so initially it might halve prices, which would not take it anywhere near either existing West or East African prices.

Njie believes that most will maintain existing prices for end users but increase the bandwidth offered. This has been the pattern elsewhere but within 12-18 months there are cheaper offers and the wholesale bandwidth price comes down rapidly. Unique Solutions will, once the landing station is operational, have just under 20 times as much bandwidth as it currently has. For others, it will be more like 10 times as much.

The ACE landing station consortium is a public private partnership. On the private side of the partnership with 51% of the shares are mobile operators QCell, Africell and Comium and ISPs Unique Solutions and NetPage. On the public side with 49% are the incumbent telco Gamtel (20%), the Government owned mobile operator Gamcel (20%) and the Government (19%):”In Sierra Leone, the Government is still holding on to all the shareholding and in other countries, small operators have not had an opportunity to own a piece of the cake. The Government gave us fantastic repayment terms for the private sector’s 51% and the World Bank gave the Government a grant, not a loan.”

Gambia has successfully secured a place for itself as the country where the overall launch of the ACE cable system will happen on 19 December 2012.

Insurgent challenger ISPs are currently faced with some tough choices as bandwidth gets cheaper and technology changes. Most have hung on to the edge of the cliff with a customer base of corporates and high-end households. Service and reliability have been the two things they’ve been able to sell. However, last week we wrote about Smile Telecoms in Tanzania achieving actual speeds of 6 mbps with a rolled-out LTE network.

Once customers have experienced that kind of speed level, there will be no going back. Current 3G and 3G+ speeds on mobile networks are extremely variable and not reliable enough to handle higher end services like video and video conferencing. 

In the Gambian market, Njyie just thought it was too early:”One of the reasons we chose Pure Wave was they have a path to LTE and we were concerned about the transition. The issue for us was: who would pay for the LTE network? Our realities dictate that our customers need a reliable network and they don’t care what you call the technology.”

However, there are already 3 LTE roll-outs in Africa (Angola, Nambia and South Africa), a number of publicly announced LTE pilots (see news sections below) and a number of LTE pilots that are still below the radar. There are spectrum issues but as with 3G and its many variants the moment one operator gets into market, the others will be forced to follow, either slowly or quickly.

As Moataz Rafaat, Director of Sales-Africa, Green Packet observes:”LTE migration will be encouraged by the competitiveness between mobile operators. Many are doing LTE pilots.” Green Packet has around 20 African countries with WiMAX installations in the 2.3, 2.5 and 3.5 bands. “But the successful WiMAX segment is well-financed and stable enough to pursue LTE”.In terms of vendors, companies like Greenpacket will have equipment that can handle both WiMAX and LTE alongside each other:”LTE will co-exist with WiMAX and HSPA. There are two operators who will have LTE that will co-exist.”

On the all important question of the price of end user devices for LTE, Rafaat says:”It will be disclosed at the end of the month when we launch the new products. It’s going to be more expensive than WiMAX, probably twice the price but they will come down in price over the next 2-3 years because of the mobile operator roll-out.” On this basis, the price is likely to be around US$300.

2013 will undoubtedly be the year that LTE starts to cascade out across Africa but the big question is how quickly those device prices will come down to something more like Wi-Fi device prices? The more conservative put the timetable at two years but they probably havn’t thought what the impact will be on users of having a 6 mbps connection. When the father who is an African corporate executive has it today, there is no doubt that the son and daughter will be impatient to get it and they will want something in their home that matches or exceeds this kind of speed.


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