Since the beginning of the week several Orange customers using the 4G-LTE network services have experienced a degradation in internet speeds. According to our sources, it has been established that the culprit is Smile Uganda. It has come to our knowledge that Smile Uganda has switched on its services in a frequency band that is officially licensed to Orange Uganda. The switch on began on 30th September based on a communication the regulator sent to smile allowing them to operate in a band that Orange is also utilizing. Starting from Entebbe and towards Kampala, this move has caused signal interference in both networks hence the slow internet speeds customers are currently experiencing especially in areas where both networks exist. Smile and Orange Uganda both operate FDD 4G-LTE services in the precious 800MHz band and the game of spectrum politics is just beginning.
So What’s the real problem?
The politics behind this issue runs skin deep. Smile Uganda sits between Orange’s LTE network and Normad Communication’s CDMA network and our sources have disclosed to us that Smile has for over a year been operating their LTE network on half the spectrum (5 MHz) of what they are licensed to use by UCC — and the reason for this was that they were interfering with a CDMA provider Normad Communications also known as Tangerine. So they had to shut down some part of that spectrum in areas where Tangerine also exists. This has caused a big financial lose to the company and they have cried foul to UCC for some time now. Apparently in 2012, Smile was emitting it’s LTE Downlink signal into Tangerine’s CDMA Uplink band, and this led them to move further down the spectrum and leave a spacing of over 7 MHz between the two technologies to combat the issue.
Interference between LTE 800 and CDMA 850 networks is a common issue world-wide to an extent where some regulators in some countries just kill off the CDMA networks in favor of a more futuristic broadband technology (4G LTE). Experts we spoke to advised that this issue would simply be solved in a number of ways but by all parties installing filters into their networks this issue would be history. Our source at Tangerine confirmed to us that even after the directive from UCC instructing them to install these external filters to combat the issue, the company was not able to comply, sighting procurement complications.
Does UCC lack an enforcement policy?
As another solution, in order for Smile to utilize the full 10 MHz spectrum, Orange was asked by UCC to extend 5MHz down towards to the TV band, but due to the delay of Digital Migration process and other issues the French based firm was not able to move. Apparently there have been several negotiations talking place backdoor with the regulator and all stakeholders but due to some unknown reason, this has led to Smile moving into a band that doesn’t belong to them. Which begs me to think that UCC has not managed the situation well and lacks an enforcement policy.
Orange’s LTE speeds have dropped from the thirty’s of Megabytes to just tens of Megabytes with several users even hitting as low as 1 mbps. Orange have only confirmed that so far they sent a formal complaint to the regulator to investigate and solve the mess.
We spoke to a source at smile who decided to remain anonymous and they said:
Smile maybe loosing out, but it is Orange to blame. If it was Smile in the wrong, don’t you think Orange would have taken us to court already?
After realizing the “deadly” impact this action has to their network, Smile has since tried to revert their actions but in vain, as their equipment vendor Alcatel Lu-cent is billing them twice for what we would call no work done.
With Smile having only one network to ride on, we believe it cannot win this battle, Orange has a backward compatible 3G and 2G network to ride on — so current affected customers can revert to those. Smile customers will however not enjoy the good speeds they have previously enjoyed. At the end of the day its a lose-win situation in favor of Orange. But ultimately, UCC has to sort out this mess after all it’s what the Ugandan tax payers pay them for.