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Vodacom sees 5G as use-case-driven

Andries Delport, Vodacom CTO.
Andries Delport, Vodacom CTO.

Vodacom is not making any public announcements on when it will roll-out 5G in SA but says when it does it will likely be deployed in areas where there are specific use cases.

"5G is going to happen; the question is just how quickly it's going to happen," Vodacom CTO Andries Delport told a Vodacom roundtable on the side-lines of AfricaCom 2018 in Cape Town.

"Personally, I don't think you will see massive network rollouts, like 3 000 or 4 000 sites in a year; it will be very driven by the use cases that we define."

He said one of the early local use cases will likely be the deployment of fibre-like 5G fixed-wireless connectivity services.

"If we look at fixed-line penetration, it is very poor. Yes, we are rolling out fibre-to-the-home and fibre-to-the-business, but the number of households we are targeting is still relatively small compared to the total number of households in the country. So fixed wireless access is certainly one of the use cases that we are considering and that we think 5G will be useful for."

This week, data-only network, Rain, told ITWeb that it wants to make SA one of the first five countries globally to launch 5G, with plans for a commercial 5G service to be live early next year. The network operator also believes 5G's first application in SA will be affordable high-speed broadband rather than mobile.

Vodacom has a network roaming agreement with Rain, but this does not extend to the planned 5G network.

Spectrum scarcity

In September, Vodacom Lesotho became the first company to commercially launch 5G on the African continent, but in SA, Vodacom is still waiting for requisite spectrum before any official 5G plans are announced.

"I can't have any type of discussion without talking about spectrum. Thus far in SA, we have not received any additional spectrum to roll-out 4G. So we had to take existing spectrum and squeeze the 3G traffic out of that spectrum and allocate that to 4G," Delport said.

Government has committed to licensing high-demand radio frequency spectrum early next year, which will likely be used for 4G, but plans for 5G spectrum allocation are still unclear.

Delport noted there is lot of hype around 5G. "There is a lot of optimism around it but also a lot of scepticism around it. If you look at some of the forecasts, they are predicting that in eight years' time in the world there will be at least three billion to five billion 5G connections." Delport added.

"People often ask about 5G: is it going to require massive investment? Some say yes, I think most of the operators say probably not. Is it going to change the capex profile of the company? I doubt it will because we are going to specifically focus on use cases."

Vodacom spent R4 billion on capital investment in its network in the six months to 30 September.

Delport said Vodacom is already covering 99.9% of SA's population via 2G, 99.8% via 3G and about 84% via 4G. The group already has between 1 500 and 2 000 Narrow-band Internet of things (NB-IOT) sites up and running, and sees 5G boosting its IOT capabilities considerably. Vodacom now also has over four million IOT devices running on its network, up from 3.27 million a year ago.

5G is expected to provide vastly improved speeds, more capacity and lower latency than 4G LTE, and will support advanced use cases like self-driving cars, automated manufacturing and mining, and potential advancements in healthcare and education.

William Mzimba, chief officer for Vodacom Business, expects 5G to facilitate and accelerate deployment of IOT applications but also pointed out that if 5G is not targeted correctly it could be a wasted technology.

"If you go and roll-out 5G everywhere for the purposes of what 5G is designed for, and you have no use cases, then you have no business case. You don't require one-millisecond (1ms) latency to make a phone call, so it's not a use case for 5G to make phone calls. The use case for 5G is around how I send petabytes or terabytes of data at 1ms to allow the things that require that kind of speed to make decisions quickly because there is low latency.

"We are not going to just go and spray the whole country with 5G or NB-IOT when there is no need in that specific geographic area for us to deploy. It's going to be a smart way of deploying," Mzimba added.

Device lag

The Vodacom execs agreed 5G for mobile will likely only come later because a lack of 5G-enabled devices is still a problem in the mobile space.

"You should start seeing the first 5G smartphones available to the public worldwide in about the middle of next year, but these devices are going to be extremely expensive," said Nicholas Naidu, Vodacom managing executive for technology strategy, architecture and innovation.

"You also have to think about it from both a customer and operator perspective when you are thinking about 5G on a device. For a customer, what are they going to do with that fast speed on their handset initially? But from an operator's perspective where we see the benefit of 5G is because it has far better capacity and it's a lot more efficient. So we can carry a lot more data on our network at a much lower cost on 5G, if we need that capacity," Naidu said.

"The difference between 5G and previous technologies is that it actually opens a completely new set of possibilities from a use case perspective. That is because of the latency and speed, so things you typically would not be able to do on 4G or 3G networks, now become possible with 5G, and that extends beyond smartphones. It is things like fixed wireless access, other applications in terms of automating enterprises or mission-critical control."

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