Vodacom experimenting with container base stations in SA townships

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Often perceived as behind the curve due to lack of resources, South Africa’s townships are actually almost doubling data usage, well above the national average, says Vodacom.

The country’s largest cellular network has launched a clever compact base station that fits on top of a shipping container to boost data coverage. Costing half of what a traditional base station can cost (up to R1,5m), these base station boxes can be placed on the roof of containers that are already in townships where they function as community telephone centres. The rooftop boxes also don’t require additional air conditioning because they are exposed to the air. They are connected back to the cellular network using microwave links.

Vodacom Container Base Station Alexandre Township Sandton“We’re seeing data volumes in Gauteng’s townships almost doubling year on year, which is well-ahead of the average growth rate countrywide,” says Vodacom’s Chief Technology Officer Andries Delport.

“Identifying and building new sites to cater for this in densely populated areas has been difficult, and on top of that site security can be an issue. Our engineers went back to the drawing board and developed an entirely different approach. They repackaged the base station equipment inside a compact steel structure that is then bolted to the roof of existing shipping container shops. This means that new sites can be rolled out quite literally within weeks as opposed to the typical 12-18 month lead time to build new base stations.”

Container GraphicVodacom is experimenting with five sites, while the first has been functioning for five months in Alexandra township. The sites will give a radius of coverage of up to 1.5km and can handle 5,000 subscribers at peak times.

Vodacom says it had “16.8 million active data customers, as of 31 December 2014, and data traffic countrywide had grown 62% year on year. The number of smartphones and tablets active on the network was 9.5 million devices, up 24% on the prior year. The average amount of data used per smartphone was 358 MB per month”.

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Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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