News Column

Smile's 4G Mi-Fi device brings Kampala up to speed

February 15, 2014

RUSSELL SOUTHWOOD Special Correspondent -1

Internet coverage in Africa has progressed significantly over the past 10 years but challenges still exist in the form of cost, network and capacity restrictions. So, what is the future of Internet in Africa? 

Long Term Evolution (LTE), commonly referred to as 4G, and video will be a game-changer in the continent.

YouTube for example was ranked the top five of every country by and that was despite the fairly terrible Internet speeds in most countries in Africa. You can imagine the demand if you took away the speed constraint: the swirling circle of buffering that puts off users.

I looked at how LTE is working on Smile's network in Kampala. I have been using a Mi-Fi device supplied by Smile Telecom to run my smartphone, laptop and iPad using a data connection.

The device is almost exactly the same size as an iPod and creates your own Wi-Fi hotspot. So you turn it on, pop it in your pocket and you have Wi-Fi wherever there's coverage.

Whip out the iPad and there's the little blue dot on Google maps guiding us in. The Mi-Fi works both indoors and out, which is not something every WiMAX vendor can say with confidence. The difference from the portable hotspots inbuilt on smartphones is that the latter can't handle 4G.

But the real kicker is when you use video, it plays right away and runs all the way through to the end. That's how online videos are meant to run.

For the first time, I've actually had a bandwidth speed in Africa that was the same (and at times faster) than in the UK. Smile is a challenger ISP with thousands of subscribers rather than a mobile operator with millions.

There are 1.5 million data users in Uganda, meaning ample opportunities for Smile. The company's data network has been built from scratch and is completely used for data.

Both Orange (which has a good reputation for data) and MTN (which does not) are offering LTE but I didn't meet anyone with an LTE data connection or LTE mobile handset from either operator. It's this gap between where the mobile operators ought to be in network terms and their lack of the right spectrum that offers such an intriguing opportunity for the insurgent challengers. It's what WiMAX kept promising but never delivered.

Currently, Smile has covered the Greater Kampala area (I used it all day in Mokono) and all the way down to the airport at Entebbe. It will roll out to 15 different regions this year. LTE routers are still not cheap but their cost is coming down.

The current device with 5GB of data goes for $96 and if you take out the data allowance, it makes it relatively affordable for a multi-device roaming Wi-Fi hot-spot. The only drawback is that it has a battery life similar to that of a smartphone.

Smile country manager for Uganda and Tanzania Fiona McGloin tells me that the average use per day is stronger than they initially thought at 250Mb. Most of their users have Apple devices, are on YouTube a lot or are expatriates who are streaming TV programmes from their home countries.

Apple's iPad

The latest Apple iPad is capable of being used in the 800Mghz spectrum that Smile is operating in. Customers (and they won't tell us how many) are 50 per cent corporate and 50 per cent individuals who, based on the current pricing model, are high-income.

The purchase of high-end vs low-end bundles is again split half in half, with young professionals buying most of the low-end bundles. Bandwidth is sold in capacity bundles and individuals tend to find themselves using more at first and then cut back their use.

The challenge for incumbent telcos is to prove that they can break out of being the eternal corporate ISPs and actually capture thousands of customers.

The writer is CEO of Balancing Act, a consultancy and research company focused on telecoms, Internet and broadcast in Africa

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Source: East African, The

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