5G provides leapfrog opportunity, but not without spectrum
Vodacom CEO Shameel Joosub believes 5G offers an opportunity for SA to leapfrog, but not unless much-needed spectrum is made available to operators.
"I fear that unless we get the spectrum, we will fall behind with 5G and will lag the rest of the world," he told ITWeb in an interview.
"South Africa has always been at the cutting-edge. When 2G launched, we were one of the first networks in the world to launch 2G, the same with 3G, and with 4G we made a plan even though we had to re-farm spectrum and are still waiting for spectrum. But with 5G, without spectrum there isn't any opportunity to re-farm and do more," he said at Vodacom's results presentation for the year ended 31 March.
A big roadblock for 4G's extension across SA has been a lack of access to 700MHz and 800MHz spectrum that is still tied up by SA's delayed digital migration process. Despite this, Vodacom's 4G coverage in SA now reaches 80% of the population.
SA missed the June 2015 deadline set by the International Telecommunication Union for countries to complete the full switch from analogue to digital terrestrial television. The migration date has been moved numerous times, with the latest promise being that the switch will be completed by June 2019.
"There is the opportunity to leapfrog with 5G, but I think government should allocate spectrum quickly, and that would take a little bit of pressure off digital migration. I think that will be a big step forward, and also give operators a chance to start to roll-out more."
Joosub said operators and government have been so focused on 4G spectrum, that there have not been meaningful discussions on 5G yet; however, he thinks it is time to start having the discussions to plan for 5G.
"The capability of 5G is a lot more capacity, and therefore should land up with lower cost to carry, which then can contribute to lower data prices. So, while you are waiting or trying to complete the digital migration, why not give out the 5G spectrum and basically let us get on with it," Joosub told ITWeb.
The allocation of more high-demand spectrum to mobile operators has been up in the air for years. In July 2016, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) issued an invitation to operators to apply for licences for spectrum in the 700MHz, 800MHz and 2.6GHz bands. However, the Department of Telecoms and Postal Services challenged this in court and won an interdict to halt ICASA's planned spectrum auction.
The National Integrated ICT Policy White Paper was then released in September 2016 and proposed a shake-up of the previous policy framework for spectrum allocation in favour of a wireless open access network (WOAN), which garnered criticism from many stakeholders in the sector. Operators, including Vodacom, suggested a hybrid model where the WOAN receives the bulk of spectrum but operators are also given individual spectrum allocations. In March, industry stakeholders participated in an industry consultation workshop on the Draft Electronic Communications Amendment Bill, which would make the WOAN a reality.
"My view is that the 700MHz and 800MHz spectrum is tied up but you have 2.6GHz so you should allocate 2.6GHz or auction it or whatever method you choose to do it. Then on the 700MHz and 800MHz, it is also important to provide clarity, whichever way you are going to do it, with the hybrid model or not. At least that then gives people the chance to plan, even if they know the spectrum will only be available in a year or two," Joosub said.
Making the leap
"Obviously one of the big things about 5G is the amount of speed and capacity those networks can handle, so that will give you more like a fibre-like service, than what 4G can do today," Joosub explained.
5G networks will set new standards for high-speed, wide bandwidth, low latency wireless connections, with a peak downlink rate of 20Gbps, support for one million devices per square kilometre and latency as low as 0.5ms. Trials are going on around the world but 5G will likely not be a commercial reality in SA for a few more years. This is, however, not deterring operators from preparing for the next-generation technology.
Last week, rival MTN, in partnership with vendor Huawei, successfully launched the first live outdoor 5G trial in Africa, at an event in Pretoria.
Today, Comsol Networks said it was collaborating with global technology giants Verizon and Samsung, to launch 5G fixed wireless trials in SA. Comsol CEO Iain Stevenson said that in early trials in the US, Verizon has shown the potential of the 28GHz millimetre spectrum, which has been identified for 5G services by the country's Federal Communications Commission.
"With our access to the lion's share of the 28GHz band in SA, we're excited to work together and accelerate the development of the 5G ecosystem," Stevenson added.
Joosub told ITWeb that Vodacom is also already testing 5G tech and capitalising on its relationship with Vodafone to prepare for the technology jump.
"We actually trialled 5G a couple of weeks ago at one of our conferences internally. We are also starting to prepare the networks. We build it into our design early on, because obviously you don't want to roll out stuff today and then have to go back and change it or replace it, so whatever we are rolling out today we are trying to make sure is 5G-ready."
Joosub said the design principles for 5G are also an important part to consider.
"Effectively what will change in 5G is a lot more of the intelligence will be sitting at the base station controller level, than at the base station level. So that means you need fibre between the two, so you can already start to build that in; you also need to make sure you have got the capacity in the base station controller centres and so on.
"The types of masts you erect on the sites have to have the load to be able to accommodate the 5G antennas. The type of antennas or other equipment you buy has to be 5G-ready, so from now on you start to buy a whole lot of stuff that is 5G-ready. So a lot of those design parts are what we are preparing for now, but you can't really do anything with it, of course, until you have the spectrum," he concluded.