Micro networks may offer a way to get 4G out of Africa’s cities and into towns and villages

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Mobile technology is changing as it comes to terms with the IP world and everything becomes data. The UK deployment of micro networks for rural areas by EE offers an interesting route for Africa’s mobile operators as they get to grips with 4G delivery. Russell Southwood spoke the vendors on that deployment, Parallel Wireless’ two founders Rajesh Mishra and Steve Papa to see why it may offer a cheaper solution.

Back in 2005 I used the phrase “desktop GSM” in the context of the idea of creating rural “plug-and-play” operators in Africa. It was meant to describe the shift from a world in which vendors sold relatively high-priced equipment to large-scale operators to one in which small-scale communications companies built their networks out equipment that came out of a mail order catalogue and operated largely on IP.

The use of micro networks is a part of the shift from big, proprietary equipment packages to smaller, lower cost, IP-based equipment. The Parallel Wireless antenna technology can be used as meshed architecture that, on the upside, allows a relatively small number of antennas to cover a significant area. The downside, as with any mesh architecture, is that the higher the number of users, the lower the throughput.

But with between 3-4 antennas, a community of up to 150 people in an area of about 0.5 square miles can be connected. The equipment can provide 4G to those 4G capable devices (smartphones, tablets, routers) but defaults to 3G where a 4G device is not being used. In EE’s case, the 4G is delivered using 1800MHz spectrum and the 3G using 1800MHz spectrum.

EE plans to connect 1,500 rural communities in this way where the small mobile antennas in the micro network link to the nearest mobile macro cell (a conventional BTS) thus it doesn’t need to use microwave or fibre backhaul links to be connected.

Indeed depending on signal strength, frequency and topology the Converged Wireless System (CWS) can be laid like a series of connecting islands across short distances. In the African context, it could be used at the edge of network to extend into nearby towns and villages or to fill in areas where high speed data services make sense but at a slightly lower potential revenue level.

It also says that the equipment is a Self Organising Network so easier to set up than more conventional mobile equipment:”The CWS works out the access and backhaul side and mesh multiple independent radios. If it finds a mesh radio, it hand shakes. The SON dynamically generates a configuration…Its gone from the installation and management of equipment to it operating ‘off the shelf’”. The CWS units can be daisy chained. Also a cluster of CWS units when meshed can increase the overall throughput. Parallel Wireless’ Steve Papa says that the units would work well with TV White Spaces because of its ability to dynamically allocate frequencies.

In cost terms, the two items of equipment needed – the LTE Access Controller and the Converged Wireless System- cost between US$3000-5,000 depending on the configuration. The CWS comes is described as a “base station re-imagined” and comes in a “compact enclosure” that can either go outside or be put in a vehicle. EE estimates that the approach will cost it 30% less than what it would spend on putting up a macro base station in similar circumstances.

So does Parallel Wireless see potential in the African market? Steve Papa says:”I think Africa is a fantastic market.” He wants to have a high frequency and higher power versions next year and there will be trials in Q2, 2015:”We’re looking for people to do trials with”. He’s also looking to reduce the energy required which should play well in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Mobile operators have tended to stick with a single vendor or two vendors. That way it can either have its staff familiar with the whole network and minimize training required for unfamiliar equipmen or have it externally managed by the vendor. Papa makes the point that:”The future of HetNet requires interoperability…The LTE Access Controller will provide that interoperability.”

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