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Telcos defy the odds to forge ahead with 5G rollouts

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 03 Aug 2023
Expansion of 5G networks will have a far-reaching impact on SA, say experts.
Expansion of 5G networks will have a far-reaching impact on SA, say experts.

South Africa’s mobile network operators are stepping up their 5G expansion plans, despite several challenges that impede mass adoption.

While the local 5G market is in an early growth phase, the country’s plans around the fourth industrial revolution are largely dependent on the acceleration of emerging technologies such as 5G, according to the telcos.

Rain, Vodacom and MTN tell ITWeb their 5G network rollouts are accelerating, with plans to further advance deployments across the country, regardless of lingering issues, such as costly fixed 5G connectivity, load-shedding-related limitations and the high cost of 5G-enabled phones and routers.

Telco Rain, which in 2019 was the first operator to launch a commercial 5G network locally, says it has continued to expand its offering to become one of the largest 5G networks in SA.

Brandon Leigh, Rain founder and CEO, tells ITWeb the company’s focus is on reaching more customers and providing affordable connectivity across the country.

“Currently, our 5G network covers over eight million households across the country. We will continue to expand to more regions and towns, with the rollout of the additional 700MHz, acquired at the recent spectrum auction, being well under way. Looking ahead, we have an exciting roadmap for the remainder of the year.”

According to Leigh, the company has seen increased demand for its rainOne 5G plan for homes and phones – despite several obstacles.

“Load-shedding and the associated battery theft syndication have posed an industrywide challenge. We will continue to work closely with government, industry bodies and security partners to reduce the impact on our customers’ connectivity.”

Brandon Leigh, Rain founder and CEO.
Brandon Leigh, Rain founder and CEO.

In May 2020, Vodacom went live with its 5G mobile network in three cities – Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town.

In June 2020, MTN launched its 5G network, going live with 100 sites. MTN SA says its 5G network currently covers over 25% of the local population and it is on track to further execute its 5G strategy to more sites nationwide.

Jacqui O’Sullivan, chief of sustainability and corporate affairs at MTN SA, states: “The 2022 spectrum auction released much-needed spectrum in the low and mid spectrum bands.

“MTN is deploying infrastructure using previously-acquired and newly-acquired spectrum capacity. Our new site build programme is broken up into areas where we need more capacity and areas where we want to extend our 5G coverage beyond the 25%. This includes townships, peri-urban and metropolitans where there is 5G-enabled smartphone penetration.”

MTN’s 5G products include MyMTN Home 5G plans and Home Internet 5G SIM-only contracts.

O’Sullivan adds the operator’s core focus is to move customers onto 4G and 5G technologies through defined user migrations from legacy 2G and 3G technologies.

“On the challenges, although 5G device costs are coming down, they are still not at the level we would like, to drive 5G adoption,” she comments.

Vodacom says it has 5G coverage across all nine provinces, offering Home Internet 5G packages and several 5G mobile phone deals.

Byron Kennedy, Vodacom spokesperson, points out that as of the end of March 2023, its 5G coverage in SA was at 17.9%.

“We are working to provide 5G customers with an enhanced experience through faster speeds and lower latency, while also supporting the development of emerging technologies, such as the internet of things,” states Kennedy.

He points out that SA’s electricity crisis makes 5G more costly to deploy. “5G sites need to be upgraded for the power requirements of new 5G equipment (backup power and grid supply). This increase in cost has a dilutive impact on the number of sites operators are able to deploy.”

Expansion equals affordability

According to telecoms industry pundits, further expansion of 5G networks will have a far-reaching impact on every sector in SA, through internet speeds which are 10 times faster than 4G, lower latency, higher capacity and increased bandwidth. For consumers, 5G smartphones will make it easier to receive coverage in previously hard-to-reach areas.

5G networks are now available in most of SA’s major metros, with the first phases of rollout taking place in high LSM income areas.

Africa Analysis notes that as of 31 December 2022, Rain had 2 000 5G sites, while MTN had 1 546 in the same period. By 31 March 2023, Vodacom had over 1 500 5G sites across SA.

Last month, Telkom told ITWeb it has 340 5G sites, which cover about 8.5 million people.

Chris Geerdts, MD of research firm BMIT, points out that while the large operators have significantly benefited from the new high-demand spectrum they were allocated in 2022, fixed-wireless broadband access is still the most in-demand offering available, primarily to residences but also to businesses.

Although 5G is able to introduce exciting new use cases, the reality is that in most countries, fixed-wireless broadband and mobile broadband are the dominant use cases, he continues.

“In South Africa, this is even more the case, since there is such pent-up demand for affordable broadband. Although fibre deployment is aggressive, it still only covers a small portion of the total households, and therefore fixed-LTE is actually the dominant technology for providing broadband, and 5G is also taking market share.

“Load-shedding has presented a triple whammy to the market because operators have to divert investments from network upgrades in LTE and 5G, to spending money on batteries. Another inhibitor for 5G is that LTE deployment is still compelling for mobile operators,” asserts Geerdts.

The reason telcos still favour LTE is the higher penetration of devices with subscribers and the lower cost of new devices, both for fixed and mobile services, in comparison to 5G devices, he adds.

Dobek Pater, director of business development at Africa Analysis,says full mobility 5G services are available and growing, although at present, much of this growth probably comes from contract handset replacement and fixed 5G services/enhanced mobile broadband.

“Monthly prices of fixed 5G connectivity are high, particularly in relation to some of the other fixed connectivity products, which limits 5G as a choice for home/office connectivity.

“Overall, the 5G ecosystem needs to expand in SA. This will make 5G more valuable and useful. It will also lead to new use cases being taken up by consumers and business users. Part of this is greater ‘affordability’ of 5G from a customer premises equipment (CPE) and subscription perspective. This will be addressed through decreasing prices of CPE and also new business models used to sell 5G services,” explains Pater.

Dobek Pater, director of business development at Africa Analysis.
Dobek Pater, director of business development at Africa Analysis.