Launch of new high-speed technology a big advance

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By launching LTE, the latest development in faster cellphone networking, before most European countries, South Africa is ahead of the continent it generally follows. So what, you might ask.

Faster cellphone networks are not much use, you might argue, when the costs of using them are still so high. But the shift to LTE, the buzz for long-term evolution, or 4G, represents a sea change of significant enough proportions to warrant a bit of excitement.

The networks we use right now are designed to carry voice calls. The world has shifted from voicecentric cellphones to datacentric mobile computers. Messaging has shot up, as have other communications services such as e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and BBM. Five years ago people spent 90% of their calling time on their phone; now it’s only 26%.

LTE is made for moving data in a world in which data are the new currency. Photo sharing has become the biggest little business online. Instagram is going through a resurgence, Pinterest is still blooming and Motribe’s MxPix had a million users within a few months. MxPix is a great little product that gives Instagram-like functionality to feature phones and was made by two of South Africa’s smartest entrepreneurs, Vincent Maher and Nic Haralambous. Not surprisingly, Mxit, which calls itself Africa’s largest social media network, bought Motribe. These are both home-grown success stories we can be proud of.

Last week Vodacom became the first network operator to launch LTE commercially in South Africa, stealing the thunder from MTN, which has been testing such a network for 15 months. Using the latter for the past few months and the former for a few days reveals what a mighty splendiferous thing LTE is.

Super-fast data speeds, quick downloads of large files and generally a snappy service makes LTE the fast broadband experience we’ve been crying out for for years. There are technical details that MTN says will make its LTE network faster, but the company can only blame itself for not throwing its hat in the ring with Vodacom and Cell C and claiming the “first to commercially launch” status that Vodacom has won.

There are still skirmishes going on over cheaper calls and costs but to call it a price war would be a misnomer.

Cell C is again in the vanguard of trying to bring call costs down and, better still, to demystify call price structures. It has been joined, briefly, in the public fray by Vodacom, whose prodigal son, Shameel Joosub, has returned from a stint at Vodafone Spain to lead the Southern African group – competing against his former Vodacom boss and now Cell C CEO, Alan Knott-Craig snr.

But Cell C has little choice. Vodacom and MTN have dominated the South African cellular industry as a duopoly for a good 15 years. The smaller network (but by no means an underdog, given that it is the third-largest networking company in South Africa by customers, with an estimated 7million) has to shake things up to entice people to switch.

Its recipe is simple: all calls are 99c, whether prepaid or post-paid. International calls are the same. It has partnered Discovery to offer its Vitality customers free calls to each other.

The response of Vodacom and MTN has been to point out that their packages offer as many benefits but comparing apples with apples between the three networks is virtually impossible.

LTE is a great technology. While call and data costs have decreased in real terms, we’ve become more avid users and demand better. As all consumers should.

This column first appeared in The Times on 14 October 2012.

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