SA’s 5G to remain patchy in big metros for 12 months

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The ball is now in telecommunications regulator the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa’s (ICASA’s) court to release spectrum that will enable the mass rollout of 5G technology in SA.

So say analysts, as SA’s big telcos – Vodacom and MTN – have lit up their 5G networks using the emergency spectrum temporarily issued by ICASA in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week, MTN launched its next-generation 5G network, which it says delivers higher peak data speeds, ultra-low latency, increased reliability and greater network capacity.

Launching today with 100 sites, MTN’s 5G network covers areas of Johannesburg and Cape Town, as well as Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth.

In May, 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.

Vodacom’s 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.

In September last year, mobile data-only network operator Rain activated Africa’s first commercial 5G network.

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.

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

Nonetheless, last week ICASA said it will “slightly delay” publication of the invitation to apply (ITA) for the wholesale open access network and International Mobile Telecommunications spectrum, commonly known as high-demand spectrum.

This is despite the telecoms regulator’s briefing to Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Communications last month that the ITAs would be published “very soon”, noting the end of this financial quarter (end of June) as a possible publication date.

The ITA is for licences for spectrum in the 700MHz, 800MHz, 2.3GHz, 2.6GHz and 3.5GHz bands, which the regulator has committed to auction by December.

Permanent spectrum solution

Chris Henschel, director at Cellucity, comments that the current network deployments by Vodacom and MTN are relatively small and have taken advantage of government releasing much-needed spectrum during the COVID-19 lockdown.

“To have a mass rollout of 5G nationally, it will require the government to award spectrum permanently,” Henschel says.

He notes the main challenge operators will face in their 5G push is the cost of rollout and securing additional base stations, as the 5G network relies on a far greater line of sight type network set-up with much shorter ranges, so to cover a large metropolitan area requires a greater base station footprint.

“At present, the initial offers from both networks look good from a costing perspective, and as we reach scale on the network build, we will, hopefully, see a reduction in cost and the ‘fixed 5G’ service will then be far more accessible to the public and offer value, competing head-on with the current fibre offerings in the market,” says Henschel.

Ofentse Dazela, director for pricing research at Africa Analysis, says in the next six to 12 months, 5G coverage will probably remain very patchy, available in the three big metros.

“The main issue at the moment is that although several key operators have been allocated temporary spectrum that they can leverage and rollout this service at a greater scale, operators such as MTN and Rain are still waiting for radio equipment that is more compatible with their tower infrastructure, and this has effectively slowed down the speed with which this service could be rolled out.”

Spectrum block uncertainty

Dazela points out that the other notable challenge is that operators are still not sure which spectrum blocks they will be able to get come the auction process in December.

“However, once these issues are sorted out, it will not take long, probably another 12 months for this service to go mainstream given that most of the infrastructure that operators have deployed in recent months is 5G-ready.”

He adds that the only thing the regulator possibly could have done much earlier was to allocate high-demand spectrum.

“Had spectrum been allocated much earlier, the move could have brought forward the commercialisation of this service by several months, if not years, and the service could have gained much traction in the market already.”

According to Dazela, South African operators are well-positioned to rollout 5G services with minimal challenges as they have been rolling out 5G infrastructure in preparation for mass deployment.

Nonetheless, he points out that challenges could emanate on the side of the communications ministry, which is yet to finalise digital migration.

“If this migration process continues to face delays, the implication is that spectrum currently used by broadcasters may not be available for use by the time the auction process is concluded. This could hamper efforts to quickly rollout this service across the country,” Dazela says.

A matter of timing

Christopher Geerdts, senior telecoms consultant at BMIT, says there are three requirements for 5G to go mainstream – spectrum, devices and coverage.

He notes 5G requires a lot of spectrum to be effective and also affordable, and a lot depends on the timing of the spectrum assignments.

“Devices are available but remain fairly expensive. Once they come down in price, as is already happening, enough consumers can buy units to create a critical mass. MTN and Vodacom certainly appear to be committed to expanding coverage aggressively, once they have spectrum and devices become more widespread,” he says.

“The most important step is to release spectrum, which is the lifeblood of LTE and 5G. Without spectrum, the country cannot really get out of the starting blocks. With emerging dynamic spectrum technology, operators can rollout LTE and 5G on the same spectrum bands.”

Geerdts notes the low band spectrum is particularly important to release as operators can then improve the basic population coverage and indoor coverage.

“At the same time, it is important to increase levels of competition at both the infrastructure and services layer. We have seen from the fibre-to-the-home market how a thriving, open wholesale market can develop when service providers can compete for customers using innovation, pricing and service. 5G needs to be introduced into the country with a similar, open access wholesale model.”

Geerdts is of the view that it is critically important for SA to be at the forefront of the global wave of 5G deployments so that it can remain technologically competitive and enable local ecosystems of digital businesses to grow and compete on the world stage.

“5G can contribute to building a strong export market of digital services and can help businesses to become more efficient. 5G can really stimulate the economy and enable a new generation of businesses within the right enabling framework.”

At the same time, notes Geerdts, millions of South Africans remain digitally excluded from all of the benefits of the country’s broadband world and the more society depends on smartphones to work, socialise and interact, the more critical it becomes to include all citizens.

“5G must be introduced for maximum benefit. We should be considering innovative solutions to overcome the scourge of digital exclusion,” he concludes.

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