How to Tell if Your Phone Will Work With Kenya's 4G Networks


If you're thinking of buying a new smartphone (or are travelling/moving to Kenya), it's wise to consider the network capabilities of the phone you intend to buy or use. With this respect, the type 4G/LTE network in use is the most important to consider as it not only varies by country but also the various network operators (carriers) within a country.

At the moment, there exists 4 carriers in Kenya, namely: Safaricom, Airtel Kenya, Telkom (formerly Orange Kenya) and the latest entrant, Faiba 4G. At the time of this writing, only three of these support 4G (i.e. Safaricom, Telkom and Faiba 4G) though Airtel has indicated in the past to be doing trial phases on its platform and so it's only a matter of time before they launch theirs. Airtel has finally rolled out its 4G network.



However, of more importance is the 4G coverage by these networks for as it stands currently, only Safaricom has 4G coverage in all the 47 counties in the country (something that has taken it almost 3 years to implement: 2014-2017). Telkom and Faiba 4G are still rolling out, though the former has more significant coverage compared to the latter which just launched this month (Dec 2017). Regardless, you're more than likely assured 4G coverage if you're in any of the major towns in the country. The trickier part however is getting your phone to support the various 4G networks in use. Let's delve into that.


What is 4G/LTE

Let's start with a simple explanation on what 4G actually means to those unacquainted to it:
  • LTE which stands for Long-Term Evolution is the formal name for 4G (aka 4th Generation). 4G is the fourth generation of broadband cellular network technology which succeeds the now prevalent 3G. Before this, there was 2G.
  • There exists two mobile data transmission technologies standards for 4G: FDD-LTE and TDD-LTE.
  • FDD-LTE stands for Frequency-Division Duplexing Long-Term Evolution while TDD-LTE stands for Time-Division Duplexing Long-Term Evolution. In layman terms, this two determine how your phone communicates with your operator's networks. For a more in-depth answer, read here or check the wikipedia entry here.
  • FDD-LTE is the most prevalent standard in use worldwide. TDD-LTE is popular in China and parts of Asia. It is however slowly being adopted worldwide because of its advantages over FDD-LTE.
  • In Kenya, all the network operators run FDD-LTE.
  • Beyond being FDD-LTE or TDD-LTE, a network uses specific frequencies and bands which vary across the network operators. This is what ultimately determines whether your phone will work with an operator.
  • Depending on the phone, it may support either FDD-LTE, TDD-LTE or both. It should also however support the frequency and band being used by the operator.
  • VoLTE stands for voice over LTE and it basically means making voice calls over the 4G LTE network rather than the traditional 3G or 2G connection.
  • ViLTE is an extension of VoLTE that stands for video over LTE. As the name suggests this allows making of video calls over LTE straight from your phone dialler.
  • VoLTE makes it possible to simultaneously use voice and data. It also provides better call quality compared to the typical 3G & 2G voice calls.
  • In Kenya, only Faiba 4G supports VoLTE & ViLTE. Faiba 4G relies on VoLTE for its voice product. A phone therefore needs to support not only 4G but also VoLTE to make voice calls over 4G LTE. (more on this later)

Based on all this, it's quite clear that it's the phone that ultimately determines whether it will be usable with a particular network. If you don't want the hassle of figuring out the compatibility of a phone to a network, the easiest way is to simply buy one from the network operator. All the network operators run shops (physical and online stores) and it's highly unlikely they will sell you a phone that is incompatible with their platform.

On the other hand, if you prefer buying stuff online or from retail shops this is something you can't ignore. So let's see how you figure this network compatibility issue.


4G/LTE Bands in Use in Kenya

First we need to know the various frequencies and bands used by each of the network operators in Kenya:

Network            Frequency      Band
Safaricom          800 MHz         20
                           1800 MHz        3

Telkom Kenya   800 MHz         20

Faiba 4G            700 MHz         28

Airtel Kenya      800 MHz         20


So the rule of thumb here is that you need a device that supports all these bands if you intend to use any of them. However, this may prove tricky as not all phones may support all these bands at the same time. This should explain why some Kenyans have been caught flat-footed with the revelation that their phones can't run on the Faiba 4G network despite them being 4G capable. The devil in the detail here is that Faiba 4G is the sole carrier using the 28 (700) band while its competitors are both using 20(800). To compound matters, Faiba 4G carries it voice over LTE (VoLTE). So what does this mean?


Faiba 4G VoLTE

Well, it means you need a device that also supports VoLTE not just the frequencies and bands in use. As is stands, many 4G phones do support VoLTE however most of them need software updates to utilize this capability. VoLTE ready phones for the Faiba 4G network (i.e. according to Faiba 4G) include the Nokia line of Android Smartphones:
  • Nokia 2
  • Nokia 5
  • Nokia 6
  • Nokia 8

However, there are a couple of more phones that support VoLTE not just Nokias. For one, this budget Android phone I bought not long ago from Jumia, that is before Faiba 4G launched, does support VoLTE. I had no idea it supported VoLTE only that it was the cheapest 4G device I could get at that time. That said, like many devices on sale in Kenya, it also doesn't support the Faiba 4G Band.

Still, if your phone doesn't support VoLTE worry not. You'll still be able to use it for 4G Data so long as it supports their 4G Network. Not bad if you ask me. You can always make calls via chatting apps like WhatsApp or Telegram, not mention video chat over Skype.



Choosing a Phone Compatible with the Existing 4G Networks

If you're buying a new phone (or even a 4G Modem/WI-FI Dongle), make sure to check the full phone specification of the device. Experience tells me it's commonplace to get carried away by marketing gimmicks, a la number of cores, x gigs of RAM and megapixels, that it's so easy to overlook the most essential function of the phone. So don't stop at the fact that it's 4G capable, go the extra mile and find out the bands it supports.

A. From the Phone Specifications

The specs of a phone can easily be found by Googling the phone model. If you're buying online from a shopping site like Jumia, Kilimall, Masoko etc., the specs are always provided as part of the product info.

Alternatively, you can go directly to a phone information site like GSM Arena or Phone Arena and search for your device there. The information regarding the frequencies can be found under the NETWORK section (you may have to expand to see this info).
nokia 2
Nokia 2 Specs on GSM Arena

For instance, in the screenshot above for the Nokia 2 we can see the phone supports various bands and frequencies. From this we can easily confirm that the Nokia 2 will work with all the 4G networks in Kenya because it supports, band (frequency): 3(1800), 20 (800) and 28(700), which as we have seen are what the existing operators are using.
Galaxy J7 Prime
Galaxy J7 Prime Specs on GSM Arena

In contrast, the Galaxy J7 Prime (G610F) in the screenshot above will only work with Safaricom and Telkom as it doesn't support the Faiba 4G band & frequency 28(700).

NOTE
  •  Some smartphones brands (Samsung especially) release various models of the same base model. These models sometimes differ in the bands they support since they're destined for different markets. So when searching for specs, make sure you know the exact model rather the base model only (e.g. instead of Samsung Galaxy J7 Prime you'll want to search Samsung Galaxy J7 Prime G610F). 
  • For instance, GSM Arena shows you all the models available for a particular base model (you'll most likely want one that's destined for Africa as shown below).
    models
    Check the specific model
  • If you intend to use VoLTE (on Faiba 4G) make sure to also check for it in the specs. If it's not mentioned explicitly, Google is your friend.
  • All these applies to IPhones and Windows Phone (this one's dead anyway)  as well, not just Android. So make a point to check their bands too. Generally speaking, the latest IPhones tend to have very wide support for different LTE bands.

B. Using Online Services

An easy and quick way to check the frequencies of a phone and if it will support a specific carrier worldwide is to use the Frequency Check site. This site will allow you to see all the frequencies supported by a given phone model and further allows you to check a phone's compatibility against specific carriers. As of this writing it supports all the Kenyan carriers except for Faiba 4G. Their phone support is however not exhaustive so this may only prove worthwhile for established smartphone brands.
Infinix Zero 5 bands
Infinix Zero 5 Dual SIM LTE 64GB Bands

In the screenshot above we can see the bands that the Infinix Zero 5 Dual SIM LTE 64GB support as listed in the site. From that table can easily tell it will work with Safaricom and Telkom but not with Faiba 4G.



C. Using Engineer Mode / Service Mode

For the advanced users, you can utilize the Engineer Mode app that comes with some Android phones to check the bands that your phone supports. To get to Engineer Mode you need to dial a valid secret code on your Phone Dialler (preferably the stock one). You also need to know which SOC (chip) your phone uses. The most common ones are MTK (MediaTek), Qualcomm and SPD (Spreadtrum). If you don't know, you'll first need to confirm that by checking your phones specs or using an app that shows your phone's hardware.

Typically, most phones in the Kenyan market tend to be of the MTK variety (Tecno, Infinix, etc.). Most high end phones however tend to use Qualcomm chips which I believe don't have the Engineer Mode (at least not the one we want).

Codes you can try are as follows:
  • MediaTek (MTK): *#*#3646633#*#*
  • Spreadtrum (SPD): *#*#83781#*#*

There's no guarantee however that these will work since some phone have this feature disabled or the codes are device specific. In that case try Googling your phone's codes.

If you do manage to get to Engineer Mode, under Telephony select Band Select. If it's a dual sim select the 4G SIM in the next menu. You should now be able to see the bands that your phones support. The ones it doesn't support can't be activated.
bands
Checking supported Bands

As you can see in the screenshot below, my phone here doesn't support the Faiba 4G band but does support the one by Safaricom and Telkom (FDD_BAND20 & FDD_BAND3). Luckily however, it does seem to support one TDD band. I guess I can visit China with it.
engineer mode bands
LTE Bands in Engineer Mode
For a video tutorial on how to check LTE modes using Engineer Mode, you can watch the following videos:

Conclusion

So basically that's it. I hope this has answered some of your questions regarding the 4G networks in Kenya and hopefully will enable you to make the right choice when buying a 4G device. If you found this post useful, you're much welcomed to share it with your family and friends. Thanks.


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