Alternative local ICT solutions discussed

March 1st, 2018, Published in Articles: EngineerIT

Rudolph Muller: “MTN is the best mobile network for now – but Vodacom is not letting grass grow under its feet!”

The term “underground” conjures up the feeling of something not quite acceptable, but this was not the case with the recent MyBroadband Underground Mobile Networking conference. The event might have been looking for a catchy word for “alternative”, and that is exactly what it was. The conference subjects covered interesting alternatives to the everyday mobile communications topics. Yet the organisers could not get away from the question of which mobile network is the best. The subject was covered by MyBroadband founder, Rudolph Muller.

MTN and Vodacom have been in an advertising spat, both claiming to have the best mobile network. The argument ended with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) agreeing with Vodacom, saying that its advertisement was not misleading or dishonest. The ASA subsequently dismissed MTN’s complaint. But that is not the end of the story. It depends entirely on the model used to determine which is the best mobile network.

Muller put the cat amongst the pigeons when he declared that, based on real-world network performance tests, MTN has the best network in South Africa. He said that simple speed tests are misleading as they are hosted by the mobile operators at the edge of the network. A real speed test would be done where the content resides, which is why the MyBroadband speed test apps are hosted at peering points.

To rate a network it is important to test the download speed, upload speed, latency, reliability and coverage. Based on this, MTN achieved a network quality score of 9,98, Vodacom 9,38, Telkom 6,72 and Cell C 6,41”, Muller said. These tests are carried out on a quarterly basis.

The conference started off with a discussion by Richard Sha, CEO of Sqwidnet on a low-cost IoT network that today covers 81% of South Africa, at a price of R7 per annum per device.

The network is based on Sigfox, employing a tailored lightweight small messaging protocol. Less data means less energy consumption, hence longer battery life. An uplink message has up to a 12-bytes payload and takes an average 2 s over the air to reach the base stations which monitor the spectrum looking for ultra-narrow band (UNB) signals to demodulate. For a 12-byte data payload, a Sigfox frame will use 26 bytes in total. The payload allowance in downlink messages is 8 bytes. Sigfox meets the requirements of mass IoT applications such as a long device battery lifecycle, low device cost, low connectivity fee, high network capacity, and long range. The density of the cells in the Sigfox network is based on an average range of about 30 to 50 km in rural areas. In urban areas where there are usually more obstructions and the RF noise is higher, the range is reduced to between 3 and 10 km.

There is no signaling, nor negotiation between a device and a receiving station. The device decides when to send its message, picking up a pseudo-random frequency. It’s up to the network to detect the incoming messages, as well as validating and de-duplicating them. The message is then available in the Sigfox cloud, and can be forwarded to any third party cloud platform chosen by the user.

MTN’s Zolton Miklos’ discussion was around how to build a great mobile network. He made two important points: the ongoing lack of spectrum and using the appropriate mobile handset. He said that it is becoming increasingly difficult to build a great network if you have to keep refarming spectrum from one service to another. Ultimately both suffer. He said the type of end-user device is also important. A mobile network operator can build the greatest network but if the end-users’ devices cannot handle all the features the network offers, a great network would not live up to expectations.

No conference today is complete without a discussion on 5G and WiFi offloading.  Ericsson’s Ahmad Husseini said that although there is no final 5G specification, some aspects have been clarified. This has prompted Ericsson and MTN to launch South Africa’s first 5G trial – concentrating on the new radio aspects.

Grant Marais, CEO of Vast Network said that WiFi offloading makes it possible for mobile users to walk into a mall and automatically switch from their cellular network to WiFi with no disruption. “This will yield a better consumer experience and make more efficient use of spectrum.” He predicted that at least two mobile operators will incorporate WiFi into their service offerings through GSM offloading in 2018.

The technology discussion of the day was by Andre Fourie of Poynting. He has developed a proof-of-concept system for connecting homes to fibre backhaul more cost-effectively than trenching and connecting each customer with individual fibre. Fourie called it a “corridor coverage” system – which covers streets rather than a whole neighbourhood. It is completely wireless and relies on an interesting new antenna design and placement of the antenna. At the beginning and end of each street block an antenna is mounted on a pole, such as a streetlight pole, 4 m above the ground. The angle of the antenna is important to ensure the signals arrives at each house with approximately the same signal strength. The antennae have a narrow beamwidth which reduces spillage to the level enabling the same frequencies to be used in the next street block. This was undoubtedly the most underground (alternative) concept presented at the event.

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