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Vodacom CEO cautions SA on 5G mass deployment timetable

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Vodacom is tipping longer-than-expected 5G rollouts in SA but says it will continue learning and improving the technology in preparation for mass deployment.

Speaking to ITWeb, Shameel Joosub, Vodacom Group CEO, reveals it will take years before the fifth-generation technology reaches the same levels of the 4G networks, which currently provide connectivity to most mobile phones.

Vodacom recently switched on its 5G mobile network in three cities – Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town – with further rollouts planned to other parts of the country, but Joosub believes this may take longer.

The latest development comes as the global 5G market is evolving much faster than the previous generation 4G LTE standard, with a total 31 5G commercial service launches worldwide by the end of the second quarter of 2019, according to market analyst firm IHS Markit.

Joosub says Vodacom will, in the meantime, introduce more 5G-enabled devices, within a 5G coverage area, as its technicians develop a deeper understanding of the technology.

Vodacom this week announced the availability of the LG V60 ThinQ 5G, along with LG’s V50 ThinQ 5G, as the first two 5G-enabled smartphones on its network.

The foldable, 5G-enabled LG V60 ThinQ phone features upgraded audio, video and photo capabilities.

Discussing Vodacom’s 5G investments with ITWeb after presenting the telco’s year-end results, Joosub says its spend on the technology is still at its infancy and will take a bit longer to take off.

He explains: “The budget is still very small at this stage; however, it is important to launch these technologies because…you are optimising your understanding of how it works, which is very good for engineers.

“The rollout will take years to reach the levels of 4G; this is not something that will happen overnight.”

Joosub’s observations come at a time when the operator is experiencing higher customer data usage.

During the year ended March, Vodacom had a steady increase in data traffic, with 1.9 million more data customers connecting to its network − a 9.7% jump to 21.9 million. The surge was prompted by the sharp data price reductions in SA, specifically out-of-bundle data rates.

In December, the Competition Commission recommended data cost reduction, with Vodacom and MTN being ordered to cut data prices by up to 50%.

According to Joosub: “While it is still early days, the trend of increased data usage has continued into the current financial year following reductions in 30-day data bundle tariffs of up to 40% from 1 April 2020 and the launch of our ConnectU platform, which provides easy access to numerous zero-rated essential service Web sites.”

SA’s big mobile operators have been lagging behind in launching 5G services due to a cocktail of reasons, including the long wait for more spectrum to be licensed to them by communications regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA).

The operators were 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 now been temporarily used to push limited 5G deployment.

Vodacom Group CEO Shameel Joosub.
Vodacom Group CEO Shameel Joosub.

However, Joosub cautions: “The spectrum will be returned when the national state of disaster is over, just before the auction of spectrum, because effectively they will need it.”

Adding to the challenges faced by operators in SA and the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa are high implementation prices, according to the GSM Association.

Over and above the challenges around cost, South African operators are also being met with consumer resistance to 5G.

Recently, anti-5G groups shared false claims about 5G, with more than 23 700 people signing a petition online to “Stop 5G rollout in Cape Town, SA, and while we're at it, the world”.

Activists are concerned about the possibility of 5G radio waves, which emanate from land and in space, producing harmful radiation which they claim causes brain cancer and headaches, with the latest concern being COVID-19.

However, health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize refuted claims 5G technology played a role in the conception or spread of the pandemic. “We are dealing with a lot of fake news here. The reality is that 5G is a technology, and coronavirus is an organic infection that is based on a living viral agent.”

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