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MTN launches first LTE LAA network in South Africa

MTN South Africa, working with Chinese telecommunications equipment vendor Huawei, has trialled an LTE Licensed-Assisted Access (LAA) network at a test site in Pretoria.

The mobile operator claimed on Friday that it is the first time the technology has been trialled in Africa.

LTE LAA is an evolution of the LTE-Unlicensed mobile technology, which allows LTE to utilise unlicensed spectrum to enhance network capacity.

The Pretoria trial was completed by aggregating 15MHz of MTN’s licensed 2,1GHz spectrum with 40MHz of spectrum in the unlicensed 5GHz band. This achieved a peak downlink throughput of over 400Mbit/s as measured by the Ookla Speedtest application, MTN said in a statement.

Giovanni Chiarelli, chief technology and information officer at MTN South Africa, predicted that LTE LAA will be a “game changer” for the industry and will provide customers with a faster network experience.

“We have been hamstrung by the lack of access to certain bands of spectrum, but we are pleased with what we can achieve within the limitations we are working under,” Chiarelli said in the statement.

“The lack of critical high-value spectrum has compelled MTN to refarm existing spectrum and combine existing licensed mobile spectrum with unlicensed 5GHz spectrum to increase mobile broadband data speeds,” he added.

“Due to the use of the unlicensed 5GHz band, which has a very short range determined by regulated transmission power limits, LTE LAA will be used for in-building LTE deployments. Quality indoor coverage has always been a challenge for operators, and we hope that LTE LAA will considerably address this challenge…”

MTN said that LTE LAA uses the “listen before talk” or LBT functionality to enable it to coexist in the same area as Wi-Fi networks without degrading their performance. This functionality is the key difference between LTE LAA and its predecessor, LTE-Unlicensed mobile technology, and is considered critical to ensuring optimal co-existence between Wi-Fi and mobile networks, it said.

Tests were conducted on a non-commercial prototype device, as commercial handsets are not widely available. MTN expects that commercial devices that support LTE LAA will be available in the market later in 2017.