CAPE TOWN Africa could have its first commercial long-term evolution (LTE)or 4G network as early as next year, as wireless phone operators gear up to meet growing data demand from smartphone users, an Ericsson executive said on Wednesday.
Mobile carriers worldwide are increasingly upgrading to LTE networks that support high-speed wireless services as consumers use tablet computers and smartphones to surf the web.
The technology will initially be rolled out in hot spots or areas with very high demand for high speed connectivity, according to Lars Linden, the head of Ericsson in sub-Saharan Africa.
"You will see the first networks going in 2012 already to a certain small degree. It will surprise me if the big dragons such as MTN, Vodacom, (Bharti) Airtel and all these big brands, it will surprise me if they do not do anything," Linden told Reuters.
"It's a very hot topic on the agenda, the question is who will be the first one out and in what market. We are talking with all these guys, that's all I can say at this time."
4G is expected to help operators ease network congestion and deliver fast connections for users of tablet computers and smartphones, a lucrative and fast-growing market.
Africa has many lower-end users who only make calls and send text messages, but its increasingly young and tech-savvy population is buying higher-end handsets that are increasing data usage across the continent.
Many operators on the continent are only rolling out broadband 3G networks now, but the big multi-country players are already testing 4G in several markets.
African telecom giants MTN and Vodacom are already running trials in South Africa and Kenya's Safaricom is also testing the technology.
"It has become an interesting race who is first in Africa but sooner or later everyone will jump on the train and it will become part of the telecommunications landscape," Linden told Reuters on the sidelines of an industry conference.
Separately, Ericsson struck a cautious tone for the fourth quarter in a statement released for its capital markets day presentation on Wednesday, as it said new lower-margin business it had won would hit profitability.
(Additional reporting by Wendell Roelf; Editing by Helen Massy-Beresford)