Frequency fracas as Safaricom threatens to quit LTE consortium

15 Mar 2012

The Kenyan government’s plans to roll out a national ‘open access’ Long Term Evolution (LTE) network have been thrown into disarray, Business Daily Africa reports, after Safaricom – the country’s largest cellco by subscribers – threatened to pull out of the tentative consortium over concerns regarding the spectrum band that the government plans to use. Nzioka Waita, Safaricom’s corporate affairs director, has warned that it will not participate in the project if the government insists on the use of 2.6GHz spectrum, as opposed to its favoured 700MHz frequencies – which Safaricom says requires the deployment of fewer base transceiver stations (BTS). Waita has claimed that 2.6GHz spectrum covers a radius of just 400 metres, whereas 700MHz spectrum is capable of covering a distance of between 19.2km and 28.8km, necessitating fewer BTS. He concluded: ‘We would want to know the frequency band that will be used; if it is not the 700MHz then they [the government] may consider [us] out of it’.

700MHz frequencies are commonly used for the provision of LTE in rural regions, but are less effective in built-up urban areas. However, the bulk of Kenya’s 700MHz frequencies are currently held by the country’s TV broadcasters, and with the country expected to miss its self-imposed June 2012 deadline for the digital switchover, any future plans for the spectrum may need to be placed on hold.

In addition, the exit of Safaricom will come as a significant blow to the government, as it is one of the few Kenyan firms involved that possesses the capital to roll out a 4G network, and any kind of dispute may lead to Safaricom pursuing its previously stated independent LTE ambitions. Other participants officially confirmed for inclusion the Private Public Partnership (PPP) in October last year included: domestic mobile operators Airtel Kenya, Essar Telecom Kenya (yu) and Telkom Kenya (Orange Kenya); local broadband providers Kenya Data Networks (KDN) and MTN Business Kenya; and global vendors Alcatel-Lucent (France), Epesi Technologies (US) and Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN, Finland).

Kenya, Safaricom