"New sites can be rolled out quite literally within weeks as opposed to the typical 12-18 month lead time to build new base stations."

Andries Delport, Vodacom's CTO

Mobile data usage in South Africa's townships is accelerating rapidly, placing pressure on mobile networks. Vodafone's South African business, Vodacom, has developed a solution, allowing mobile base stations to be retrofitted to shipping container shops, allowing for the rapid roll-out of coverage.

Mobile data usage is being driven by the rapid uptake of smartphones and tablets.  In the last quarter of 2014, Vodacom customers were using 86% more data than the same period a year ago.  With the increasing availability of low-cost devices, data usage has hit the mainstream and traffic volume growth in townships is running well ahead of the average growth rate countrywide.

This presents a particular coverage challenge for mobile networks, with high population density and a relative lack of formal infrastructure making it difficult to build new base stations to address this demand growth.

A standard mobile base station typically has a site footprint of 30 square metres or more. This includes a mast, which is usually 15-25 metres tall and supports the radio antennae that connect to mobile devices. In addition, each site has an equipment storage building to house radio and power equipment. The cost of each installation varies, but can be in the region of R1.5 million (circa £82,000).

Ahead of the average growth rate

Vodacom's Chief Technology Officer Andries Delport said, "We’re seeing data volumes in Gauteng’s townships almost doubling year on year, which is well-ahead of the average growth rate countrywide. Identifying and building new sites to cater for this in densely populated areas has been difficult, and on top of that site security can be an issue.

"Our engineers went back to the drawing board and developed an entirely different approach. They repackaged the base station equipment inside a compact steel structure that is then bolted to the roof of existing shipping container shops. This means that new sites can be rolled out quite literally within weeks as opposed to the typical 12-18 month lead time to build new base stations."