MTN has thrown down the gauntlet to Telkom. The cellular network operator has warned its fixed-line rival that wireless networks will become as dominant in broadband Internet access as they have become in voice communications.

  “Twelve years ago, Telkom didn’t think cellphone networks would be a threat,” says MTN senior manager Brian Seligmann “Today, I believe that just as we are the dominant voice players in SA, we will become the dominant data players.”

Seligmann won’t say how many broadband customers MTN has signed up — this information is disclosed to the market when the company reports its financial results — but he says MTN has seen 4500% growth in the volume of data traffic since it launched its third-generation (3G) mobile network. “The total traffic growth every 10 days now is more than we used in an entire month 14 months ago,” he says.

SA’s geography and technology favour the cellular operators, he says. Firstly, population densities in SA are low when compared with Western Europe. Because people are widely dispersed, it makes sense to use radio frequency networks instead of fixed lines to provide access, he says. Secondly, the cellular operators are expected to soon begin offering broadband access speeds many times faster than those provided by Telkom.

Seligmann predicts a number of key developments in mobile broadband:

High-speed downlink and uplink packet access networks, based on 3G, will eventually offer speeds of up to 14Mbit/s. Telkom’s fastest offering now is 1Mbit/s. In phase one of the technology’s deployment, MTN and Vodacom already offer speeds of up to 1,8Mbit/s (1,4Mbit/s in practice). Handsets that can handle 3,6Mbit/s-compliant handsets should arrive within six months. Some notebook PCs already ship with the technology built in.

In phase two, the networks will offer 14Mbit/s downloads and 1,8Mbit/s uploads at lower latency, making this ideal for online gaming.

Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Service, or MBMS, should be ready for deployment next year. MBMS is a broadcasting service that can be offered using cellular networks.

By 2009, super 3G will offer downloads of up to 100Mbit/s and uploads of up to 50Mbit/s. “By then, the mobile world will be significantly outperforming the fixed-line world.”

Seligmann says 95% of Telkom’s dial-up customers would benefit by getting their Internet access from their cellphone company instead. Based on their usage patterns, it would be cheaper and, in many instances, faster too. “The challenge is convincing the world that we are cheaper than normal dial-up. There is a perception that cellphone networks are more expensive, but it isn’t true, especially when it comes to data.”