The mobile wireless industry started its technology creation, revolution and evolution in the early 1970s. From mid-1990’s the cellular communication industry witnessed explosive growth. This innovation consists of several generations and is still going on.

The mobile network is mainly divided into two parts, the Access Network where customers connect and the Core Network which processes calls. The mobile wireless Generation (G) generally refers to a change in network features, e.g. type of technology, speed, frequency, data capacity and services that can be supported.

Each generation has some new features and techniques which differentiate it from the previous one. The first generation (1G) mobile wireless communication network was analogue in nature and was used for voice calls only.

The second-generation (2G) was first deployed in Finland in December 1991. 2G or GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) is a digital technology and supports text messaging. MTN Eswatini was launched in 1998 during the 2G era.

Before the deployment of a mobile network in the kingdom of Eswatini, messages and letters as a form of communication were sent through the postal service and bus drivers. For a few who had access to telephones, it was callboxes and fixed telephones at home. Urgent messages were sent through the telegram which was priced at a premium.

At inception, MTN Eswatini identified Ericsson, the renowned equipment provider from Sweden to be their equipment supplier, with the main switch being located at SPTC HQ in Mbabane. The first MTN network supported voice calls and short message services (SMS).

The main components for the network at this stage were the Base Transceiver Station (BTS) or site and Base Station Controllers (BSC), both found in the Access part of the network, and the Main Switch Center (MSC) in the Core Network. After a few years, the network was upgraded to support data services.

The data speeds were very low at about 30-35kbps. Customers were able to access Internet services through their phones. The technology that allowed data series was the GPRS (General Packet Radio Service), also referred to as 2.5G.

Subsequent investment from the shareholders allowed MTN Eswatini offer improved data speed, with an upgrade of the 2G networks to support EDGE (Enhanced Data rates for GSM evolution), the “2.75G”, offering speeds up to 135kbps. The core equipment that allows data on 2G is the SGSN (Serving GPRS Support Node) and GGSN (GGSN (Gateway GPRS Support Node).

GPRS and Edge services continue to exist in the market today, mainly used for PoS (Point of Sales). The new core architecture was split into the circuit switch (CS) for voice and the packet service (PS) for data calls.

Feature phones which supported voice, SMS and basic date were sold in the market as they could offer functions above the original such as Nokia 1610 and 5110 that were capable of voice and SMS.

The big jump in data speeds was introduced with the 3G services that were deployed in the Kingdom in 2011. This transformation was caused by technological advancement in the Access Network. 3G or UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) offered broadband, digitized voice, voice and multimedia at data speeds of 2Mbps or higher.

MTN Eswatini partnered with ZTE to roll out 3G, one of the big two suppliers from the Far East that were making inroads as global equipment suppliers.

The Node-B or site and Radio Network Controller (RNC) were introduced at this stage in the Access Network. The Node-B is as an enhanced site with more intelligence than the previous BTS.

Of importance in this technology were the smartphones which were capable of performing many functions of a computer, typically having a touchscreen, internet access and an operating system. Who could forget the blackberry and its services that were sought after by all the who is who’s?

A strategic decision was made by the MTN Eswatini Board of Directors and shareholders to revamp the network in 2016. Huawei emerged as the preferred vendor to modernize the entire network. 

In the new access network, an eNode-B was deployed, combining all the generations in one equipment. 4G or LTE (Long-term evolution) was also introduced as it has many advantages over the existing 2G/3G and it is expected to succeed in the not too distant future. Other key components of the  4G network in the Core are the IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem) and the MME (Mobility Management Entity).

The IMS and MME are part of the Evolved Packet Core (EPC) which was deployed in the modernized network. The EPC, when combined with IMS and MME forms the EPS (evolved packet system), which is basically able to transport and work with packets of data. 4G is capable of offering, IP telephony, gaming services, high-definition mobile TV, video conferencing, 3D television and today MTN Eswatini offers fixed services and many more exciting services.

The 4G data speeds range from 10 Mbps to 50 Mbps. The speeds are dependent on the network conditions and user devices. The user equipment remains critical at this stage, just like with 3G, as the customers will not enjoy the new services if their device is not 4G capable.

With the network components being more modular and virtual are we on the path to 5G? Whereas 4G can be considered as a game-changer in mobile communications, 5G will be the next step.

The base has been set with the 4G structure being IP flat structured. In 5G we will be talking about the Software Defined Network (SDN) and Network Virtualized Network (NFV). The big thing will be components becoming more modular and cloud-based. This is the road to the internet of things (IoT) where all will be connected.

Related Insights