Viva launching LTE this quarter with 90% coverage

4 Oct 2013

Cellco Viva Bahrain, a wholly owned subsidiary of Saudi Telecom Company, will launch a commercial 4G LTE mobile broadband network this quarter, following the recent award of additional 4G/3G radio frequency spectrum, a company representative told TeleGeography. Speaking earlier this week at the Telecoms World Middle East conference in Dubai, Viva Bahrain’s public relations consultant Karla Velazquez said that the operator is committed to launching a full commercial LTE service in Bahrain with 90% population coverage before the end of this year; she added that the network has been rolled out over the last twelve months, but that commercial launch depended on the receipt of necessary spectrum. Velazquez underlined the pressing need for 4G as well as an expanded frequency range, noting that Viva’s 3G network was already ‘saturated’ with demand leading to ‘compromised speeds’, and that Viva’s longer-established rivals Batelco and Zain Bahrain gained a headstart in the 4G market earlier this year because they already owned adequate existing bandwidth for LTE launches. Bahrain’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) last month awarded additional frequency licences in the 900MHz/1800MHz/2100MHz bands to Viva, Zain and Batelco, and while Velazquez confirmed all three operators had paid for the spectrum, the prices have remained ‘undisclosed’. The TRA has reported to the media that Viva received the largest allocation of new spectrum – six ‘lots’ of frequency, while Batelco received four lots and Zain two. TeleGeography’s GlobalComms Database adds that prior to the cancellation of the TRA’s original 4G auction plan in the first quarter of this year, the watchdog released a decision to package the available spectrum into twelve lots (including a 2600MHz band block, which has been absent from reports of the final licence awards), as follows:

900MHz band:

One lot of 2×5.6MHz (880MHz-885.6MHz uplink, 925MHz-930.6MHz downlink);

1800MHz band:

One lot of 2×10MHz (1750MHz-1760MHz, 1845MHz-1855MHz), plus one lot of 2×5MHz (1780MHz-1785MHz, 1875MHz-1880MHz);

2100MHz band:

Four lots of 2×5MHz (1945MHz-1950MHz, 2135MHz-2140MHz), (1965MHz-1970MHz, 2155MHz-2160MHz), (1970MHz-1975MHz, 2160MHz-2165MHz), (1975MHz-1980MHz, 2165MHz-2170MHz);

2600MHz band:

Two lots of 2×20MHz plus three lots of 2×10MHz.

Regarding pricing, the TRA’s decision of January 2013 finalised the minimum fees as follows:

900MHz – BHD1.68 million (USD4.35 million) for 2×5.6MHz;

1800MHz – BHD1.5 million for 2×10MHz, BHD750,000 for 2×5MHz;

2100MHz – BHD400,000 per 2×5MHz;

2600MHz – BHD800,000 for 2×20MHz, BHD400,000 for 2×10MHz.

Regarding existing spectrum holdings ahead of the latest allocations:

Batelco had 2×46.8MHz in the relevant release bands (2×11.8MHz in the 900MHz band; 2×20MHz in the 1800MHz band; 2×15MHz in the 2100MHz band).

Zain had 2×47MHz in the release bands (2×4.4MHz + 2×7.6MHz in the 900MHz band; 2×25MHz in the 1800MHz band; 2×10MHz in the 2100MHz band).

Viva had 2×35.6MHz in the release bands (2×5.6MHz in the 900MHz band; 2×15MHz in the 1800MHz band; 2×15MHz in the 2100MHz band).

To address this asymmetry in spectrum holdings, the TRA set a pre-defined cap precluding any licensee from acquiring the right to use more than 2×90MHz of paired spectrum across the specific bands (with this cap applying to total spectrum holdings, including pre-existing and new resources acquired).

According to GlobalComms, Viva Bahrain launched commercial services in March 2010, and has since become the largest cellular operator in the country in terms of total customers, although it has a lower share of revenues in the market due to capturing a large share of lower-spending users. It launched with a 3.5G HSPA+ network providing theoretical maximum data speeds of 21Mbps (downlink) across the Kingdom, and in May 2011 it launched an upgrade boosting performance to 42Mbps (theoretical) via the implementation of Dual Carrier (DC) HSPA+ technology, reaching nationwide DC-HSPA+ coverage in November that year. In January 2012 Viva launched a small-scale 4G LTE demonstration network covering the ‘Bahrain City Centre’ retail and leisure complex in Manama, but is only now poised to introduce commercial services. Bahrain’s first commercial LTE mobile broadband services were launched by Batelco in February this year using its existing 1800MHz frequencies, initially for post-paid users (with a 4G pre-paid option added in August), while Zain Bahrain’s LTE-1800 network was launched in April. Both Batelco and Zain are now boosting their LTE coverage and speeds following the additional spectrum awards.