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MTN awaits equipment to launch 5G network

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MTN is anticipating that the timing of the new high-demand spectrum auction and the switch off of the temporary spectrum will coincide to minimise disruption in its 5G ambitions.

The telco, which is preparing to launch its 5G network later this month, says it is using the temporary spectrum to provide relief for LTE capacity in data hotspots.

However, the mobile operator is still waiting for the arrival of critical telecommunications equipment needed to light up its 5G network.

This comes as chatter about the prospect of this year’s spectrum licensing process is growing amid the release of emergency spectrum, with the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) confident the process won’t be stymied.

Before the COVID-19 crisis hit, ICASA was in the process of planning for the assignment of high-demand spectrum by auction, as government looks to use the funds raised from the auction to add to the fiscus.

In March, the telecommunications regulator had to quickly focus on a spectrum relief plan to meet the demands on networks amid the COVID-19 lockdown.

Jacqui O’Sullivan, MTN executive for corporate affairs, says the temporary spectrum is helping to significantly ease the congestion the operator is witnessing in hotspots across the country.

“This assists us in delivering faster and more accessible connectivity to our customers during this difficult time. As part of our application to ICASA, we identified specific sites and broader sectors that would benefit from the temporary spectrum allocation, where we’ve seen congestion building on our network.”

She says MTN had hoped to launch its 5G offering at the start of June but due to some delays in bringing some of the equipment into the country, it had to push the launch slightly.

“We are still planning to launch by the end of June when we will have all the equipment available.”

MTN has proactively been modernising its radio network as well as upgrading all elements in the value chain, specifically the transmission and core networks that are an integral part of a 5G network.

“Our core network has been upgraded to be 3GPP Release 15 compliant,” says O’Sullivan.

“As part of this approach, we’ve been looking at the opportunity to dynamically use spectrum for 4G and 5G in the same mobile band. We will use the temporary spectrum to provide relief for LTE capacity in data hotspots identified.”

MTN says the 3.5GHz band is a key 5G band and it will also do some deployments in this band.

O’Sullivan explains: “We anticipate that the timing of the new high-demand spectrum auction and the switch off of the temporary spectrum will coincide to minimise disruption.

“The temporary spectrum utilises spectrum bands that are currently not assigned to MTN. These radios are band-specific and cannot be used for other bands. It is important to highlight that MTN did not have these radios and had to procure the radio units to make use of the temporary spectrum.”

MTN will become the third mobile carrier to launch 5G following Vodacom’s last month. In September last year, mobile data-only network operator Rain activated South Africa’s first commercial 5G network.

Vodacom switched on its 5G mobile network in three cities – Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town – with further rollouts planned to other parts of the country.

The network supports mobile and fixed wireless services and is currently available on 20 live 5G sites, 18 of which are in Gauteng and two in Cape Town.

Just like MTN, Vodacom was also recently assigned temporary spectrum by ICASA for the duration of the national state of disaster, including 1 x 50MHz in the 3.5GHz band, which has been used to fast-track its 5G launch.

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