[Update: Telkom too] Some Xiaomi phones don’t support Safaricom’s 4G LTE band 20 (800MHz)

Xiaomi Redmi 5 Plus

Although Xiaomi phones have been available in Kenya for quite some time now, the recent exclusive launch of the Redmi 5 Plus on Jumia has definitely played in favor of the Chinese vendor. Even if the Redmi 5 Plus and its smaller counterparts, Redmi 5 and Redmi Note 5A, end up performing poorly, the company will be okay with the sheer number of Kenyans its brand name would have reached at the end of it all. Jumia has a massive user base and with your product on the platform, you are guaranteed many across the country will at least see it. Well played, Xiaomi.

One good thing about this exclusive launch of the Redmi 5 Plus on Jumia is that the phone comes with the Kenyan user in mind. By this, I mean that you’ll be getting a phone that is tailored to work on all local mobile networks, be it Safaricom, Airtel or Telkom. Make no mistake, all Xiaomi phones work with local network providers, be it on 2G, 3G or even the fastest network available, 4G LTE. However, there are other models that are not fully compatible with the best Safaricom’s 4G LTE has to offer.

Safaricom 4G LTE network bands

With all the hype surrounding the entry of JTL and its Faiba 4G network into the mobile phone industry, you must have heard something about network bands and frequencies. In order to enjoy 4G LTE on JTL’s mobile network, your phone needs to support band 28 on 700MHz. For Safaricom, you need band 3 (1800MHz) and/or band 20 (800MHz) in order to enjoy the best of 4G LTE services across the country.

For those who have made an effort to find out more about Faiba 4G, some have probably been told that their phones don’t support the network’s band 28 (700MHz). In similar fashion, some Xiaomi phones don’t support Safaricom’s band 20 (800MHz) that usually works hand-in-hand with band 3 (1800MHz) to deliver the perfect LTE experience. On the brighter side, you still get the latter on every other Xiaomi phone.

As you can see, all Xiaomi phones will still get you 4G LTE services on Safaricom, but missing out on band 20 should be a concern for you and I’ll tell you why (although I’m no expert in this).

Typically, lower frequencies have better range and superior penetration, which means they can go through objects like walls and other physical barriers more easily. This is what Faiba 4G intends to offer you with its band 28 (700MHz) and Safaricom does pretty much the same through its band 20 (800MHz), the one missing on some Xiaomi phones. What this means is that while Safaricom users on the affected Xiaomi phones will still get 4G LTE connectivity thanks to the supported band 3 (1800MHz), you might end up with spotty connectivity when inside buildings, basements, or even when in the countryside, which is where lower frequencies thrive (the higher 1800MHz LTE frequency helps Safaricom serve more people in a smaller area, say, urban centers like Nairobi and Mombasa, with huge populations).

The lack of band 20 (800MHz) on some Xiaomi phones should be a concern for any Kenyan looking to buy them with an aim of using Safaricom’s 4G LTE outside major towns.

Unlike Egypt, we don’t have a Xiaomi Kenya online store, but a quick look at Xiaomi MEA (Middle East and Africa) online shop reveals 10 devices. Five of these devices (Xiaomi Mi A1, Redmi Note 5A, Redmi Note 4, Redmi 4X, and Redmi 4A) have Safaricom’s band 20 on board and the rest (Xiaomi Mi MIX, Mi 6, Mi Max 2, Mi 5, and Redmi Note 3) don’t. A further look-up on GSMArena reveals even more Xiaomi phones that don’t support band 20.

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Note that Xiaomi phones sold locally may have little to do with the listing on Xiaomi MEA online store, but given the multiple channels through which these phones are sold in Kenya, buying one needs you to be a little bit more careful if you want to get the most out of Safaricom’s 4G LTE.

Avechi has been selling Xiaomi phones for a while now, but since the retailer isn’t working directly with Xiaomi, it means some of the phones aren’t tailored for Kenyans, specifically. Considering that the retailer is the major unofficial seller of Xiaomi phones in the country, it’s likely that most Kenyans have Xiaomi phones with no band 20.

Personally, I didn’t have any issues in particular with the Redmi Note 4X’s LTE connectivity during the brief spell I enjoyed it before the “rightful” owners came for it, probably because of my place’s proximity to Eldoret town. Like any other urban center, it’s likely that I was mostly on band 3 (1800MHz), which explains why I had nothing to complain about Safaricom 4G LTE. My Note 4X unit, like many other Xiaomi phones, lacked support for band 20.

With the Jumia partnership, Xiaomi has pretty much succeeded in making yours truly feel its presence in the market more than before. The retailer’s massive reach means Xiaomi is now in many people’s eyes. While the company’s portfolio on Jumia is quite limited and at times too costly, other players like the aforementioned Avechi have more options at better prices.

Since we are a market that buys phones purely on price, it’s likely that people will be buying phones from different retailers and not, say, Jumia (assuming it’s now the official retailer for Xiaomi phones in Kenya).  The result is that some devices support band 20 and others don’t. For the average consumer, this won’t be easy to tell and more often than not they’ll end up laying the blame – or part of it – on the network provider, in this case, Safaricom, yet it has nothing to do with it.

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The lack of band 20 (800MHz) on some Xiaomi phones should be a concern for any Kenyan looking to buy them with an aim of using Safaricom’s 4G LTE outside major towns. But then again, isn’t it time Xiaomi gave Kenyans devices that are tailored for Kenyans, including supporting the new Faiba 4G on band 28 (700MHz), which only Nokia phones and a handful others from the likes of Samsung, Oppo, and Tecno, etc., guarantee?

Update: Telkom Kenya confirmed that it also uses band 20 for 4G LTE connectivity in some cities and towns, which means those using the telco are also likely to face the same issues as those already highlighted with respect to Safaricom.

Do you own a Xiaomi phone? What’s your experience with Safaricom 4G LTE when inside buildings or when out of town? Let us know in your comments below.

Each one teach one.