Mauritius’ Emtel makes first mainstream African commercial deployment of Fibre Through The Air (FTTA)

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Mauritian mobile operator Emtel has rolled out the first mainstream commercial deployment of Fibre Through The Air Technology in Africa. The technology has significant advantages for high-speed broadband service roll-out to less dense populations. Russell Southwood interviewed Emtel CEO Shyam Roy about why he deployed it and how things are going.

There have been trials of FTTA on the continent but until this announcement no mainstream commercial roll-out. A deal between Bluwan and Somcable in Somaliland was announced in 2012 but little has been heard since.

It was a technology originally created for battlefield communications and missile guidance and has been deployed in a number of cities in central and eastern Europe 40.5GHZ – 43.5GHZ band, a frequency that hasn’t been fragmented or harnessed by existing equipment.

So how did Shyam Roy come across FTTA technology?:” We have been looking for a radio last mile solution for some years and finally found Globtel by research on the net and through consultants”.

“The beauty of the solution is that except for the radio part all equipment used (including the Modem at the customer premises) are standard DOCSIS equipment. We also put together Globtel and Broadpeak, a French company, (they did know each other) to develop IP multicast over DOCSIS, this means that the solution is standard for IPTV across all technologies such as GPON, VDSL and FTTA. The result is very efficient bandwidth management on FTTA air interface and the backbone”.

The decision to implement FTTA was complementary to Emtel’s existing fibre roll-out: it’s a case of horses for courses. Underground fibre continues to make sense financially and operationally for densely populated areas and areas with high-value customers. However Roy sees FTTA as “ideal for quick deployment and acquiring rapidly market share and is somewhat cheaper”.

“Since FTTA needs clear line of sight and about 20% of the population covered cannot be served due to obstacle in the path. Therefore VDSL and FTTH needs to complement FTTA”.

So what's the cost in comparison to fibre?:”It’s less than half the price per connected subscriber. Basically because there is no waste, with FTTH the ratio of home pass to home connect can be sometimes as low as 30%”.

In terms of speed, it’s done technical tests that delivered 380 Mbps (the maximum the DOCSIS, modem could handle) but it’s delivering 10, 20 and 30 mbps to cusomers. The monthly charge for each of these options is: 10 mbps (US$25.50); 20 mbps (US$35.06); and 30 mbps (US$48.71). You also get a fixed line with free calls.

The CPE – branded Airbox - consists of a 40cm dish, a transceiver (on the focal point of the dish) and a standard DOCSIS modem in the house. The CPE remains the property of Emtel and only the monthly service fee is charged. So customer has no upfront costs on CPE.

So has the availability of higher bandwidth changed user behaviour? It seems too early to tell:” Too early to answer, however there is a definite high interest from the market for the product as the sales so far are beyond our expectation. This may also be explained by the low quality of offerings from competition”.

Emtel currently covers 66% of households in Mauritius with the technology and by Q1 2016 expects to expand that coverage to around 90%/

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