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Owners of 5G-ready devices have long wait to full 5G

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 30 Oct 2020

While SA’s 5G smartphone market is growing steadily, some owners of the fifth-generation-capable devices will have to wait up to 24 months before enjoying the full capabilities promised by the latest generation of cellular network technology.

With the country’s mobile network operators (MNOs) Vodacom, MTN and Rain in recent months starting to deploy commercial 5G networks in some parts of the country, local phone-makers have also been racing to rollout 5G-enabed devices and plan for future models that will be able to run 5G.

Samsung, Huawei, Nokia, Apple, Xiaomi and LG have all introduced 5G-enabled phones in SA, which enable access to one of the fastest and most sophisticated network connections in Africa.

5G promises to unlock the full capabilities of next-generation mobile services, including better signal strength, improved call quality with less interference, faster speeds and better connection compared to 4G.

However, due to limited 5G coverage in SA, as a result of the delayed spectrum allocation, ICT pundits believe upgrading to a 5G phone may not provide all users with the expected benefits, because the rollout of 5G heavily relies on infrastructure capacities.

In addition, affordable 5G devices are only expected to be widely available in SA within the next three to five years.

“Many top phone-makers have either committed to, or have already launched, 5G-ready smartphones within the SA market,” says Bernard van der Walt, head of TMT sector at financial services and risk management consultancy BDO Advisory.

“However, bringing the 5G network to life will require significant investment. Accomplishing this multi-layer development from the bottom-up might prove to be a high-cost undertaking for some network providers. Although there is no fixed timeline for the rollout of 5G networks, SA lags other countries in implementation, as the required spectrum has not been released by the regulating authority ICASA.”

According to Van der Walt, while countries like the UK and China started getting 5G networks last year, SA, although slower, is still ahead of the general adoption curve.

“A report on 5G in Africa by GSMA [GSM Association] estimates that only seven African countries, including South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya, will have 5G by 2025. And this will account for only 3% of mobile data compared to 16% globally That’s not all. The launch of 5G, much like any new technology, will be plagued with security and privacy challenges. Along with all these challenges, you would need to take into consideration the laws, regulations and standards associated with the rise of 5G,” adds Van der Walt.

In May, Vodacom, SA’s biggest mobile network operator, was among the first MNOs to switch on a 5G mobile network in SA, with initial deployments in three cities – Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town.

In June, MTN followed suit, launching its next-generation 5G network, which covers 100 areas in Johannesburg and Cape Town, as well as Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth.

Mobile data-only network operator Rain in July leveraged its 4G data networking infrastructure to build the 5G network in its regulated 3 600MHz spectrum band.

Automatic switch to 4G

Arnold Ponela, research analyst at IDC, says commercial offerings from MTN, Rain and Vodacom have so far been mostly fixed wireless access, using fixed routers in limited geographic areas.

“5G will have a limited positive impact on South African 5G phone owners, since the network has only been launched in a few locations around the country,” notes Ponela.

“Therefore, enjoying the benefits of owning a 5G phone will depend on the location of the user, at the moment. The only good part is that most of these phones have 4G as a secondary air interface, hence you can still connect to 4G in areas without 5G.”

According to Ponela, it may take up to two years after the spectrum allocation process for SA to have nationwide 5G coverage.

Tecla Mbongue, senior research analyst at research firm Omdia, believes the rapid or slow take-off of a mobile technology in SA depends mostly on the network coverage and the price of a device.

“The limited coverage would lead to 5G smartphone users who are on the move to lose 5G signal and be automatically switched to 4G (or lower technologies) when 5G signal is out of reach. They will therefore experience slower broadband speed.

“Omdia forecasts that 5G mobile usage may remain limited in SA over the next five years and will represent 15% of the South African mobile subscriptions in 2025. In the fixed broadband segment, the share of 5G is expected to represent slightly less than 10% of broadband households in the same period.”

Mbongue believes 5G devices are still highly priced and even if there were wider 5G coverage, the devices would still initially only serve a high-end market.