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5G set to blow away fibre speeds in South Africa

Read time 8min 00sec

Telecoms analysts believe 5G’s rapid activation capability will be more compelling to South Africans in comparison to fibre.

The analysts were reacting to news this week that Vodacom, SA’s biggest mobile network operator, switched on its 5G mobile network in three cities – Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town – with further rollouts planned to other parts of the country.

This network will support both 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.

SA’s big mobile operators, such as Vodacom and MTN, were unable to launch 5G services until more spectrum was licensed to them by the communications regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA).

Vodacom was 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, says the operator.

Vodacom and Liquid Telecom also concluded managed network services and national roaming agreements for a national 5G network in December 2019.

Broadband in its true sense

Chris Henschel, director at Cellucity, explains it has become acceptable to use the term broadband to describe any Internet that is faster than the old dial-up from the 80s.

“In its true sense, broadband refers to a band or grouping of radio frequencies that carry signal – in this case 5G data,” Henschel says.

“Fibre is different in that while it still transmits a signal, it does so using a single frequency laser (light) over a fibre-optic cable – two different methods offering a similar service.”

He points out that since 5G works over radio frequency, it does not require cables to be laid, roads to be dug up, and can be activated immediately.

According to Henschel, 5G’s frequencies used to transmit the signal support faster speeds than current fibre technology.

“This makes 5G a much more suitable solution for mobile Internet, and it will be essential for Internet of things devices such as connected homes and appliances, self-driving cars, drones, cameras and more.”

On how fast 5G will be, Henschel responds: “Super damn fast. With indicative speeds of 20GB download per second and 10GB upload (4G is at 300Mbps and 75Mbps) and a latency of less than one millisecond, 5G will blow fibre away in terms of speed. Streaming an 8K full HD movie from Netflix or Showmax will be a breeze with virtually zero lag.”

However, he says, while Vodacom has officially launched its 5G service, there are only 20 active base stations – 18 in Gauteng and two in Cape Town.

“We are still a while away from mass adoption. Like 4G and 3G before it, we can expect Vodacom to focus its rollout programme on major cities and hubs.

“Currently, our 4G/LTE connections use frequencies that are below 6MHz to deliver Internet speeds. 5G connections will use spectrum up to 24GHz. For cellular to match fibre Internet, networks have required access to a wider range of spectrum frequency. This frequency allocation has been strictly controlled and limited by the government,” Henschel says.

Erratic performance

Ofentse Dazela, director for pricing research at Africa Analysis, is of the view that in terms of service quality, 5G presents little benefits compared to fibre considering it is very much a mobile service and performance can be erratic depending on the time of the day; ie, peak versus off-peak times and the number of users connecting to a tower at a given time.

On the other hand, he notes, fibre technology does not grapple with such issues and speeds remain constant for the entire day, unless there is undersea cable breakage that results in a degraded service.

Dazela adds that 5G will initially be deployed in areas where there is sufficient fibre backhaul, meaning this service will increasingly become available in the urban areas that are already enjoying other high-speed technologies such as long-term evolution-advanced (LTE-A) and fibre-to-the-home (FTTH).

However, he points out that beyond the service quality, there are numerous other advantages, mostly as a result of the inequalities that exist in our country.

“From a pricing perspective, FTTH remains unaffordable to many households, with the average 10Mbps and 20Mbps entry-level package retailing at R399 per month depending on the service provider and level of competition on the particular network provider.

“Also, an interesting observation is that since 2014, the prices to connect to fibre have not declined, and have actually increased over the years on some networks. This implies that for the foreseeable future, FTTH will remain unaffordable to your average household in SA.”

Dazela believes this is where 5G will gain an upper hand over fibre technology. “The expectation is that like 3G and 4G services, mobile operators will introduce price-competitive packages that will result in greater uptake.”

The average set-up cost for fibre service is R1 700 on month-to-month packages, and can include a service activation cost amounting to anything from R49 to R999, he points out.

In addition, customers may be required to purchase a good quality wireless router separately at an average cost of R1 800, Dazela says, so in total, a customer can face as much as R5 000 to get going on the fibre infrastructure. This is unlikely to be the case for 5G services.

“Although it will probably take a good few years before we can get to 80% to 90% 5G population coverage, the reality is that 5G will soon cover more households quickly, overtaking houses passed with fibre. This means that in future, more households will be able to get decent 5G broadband solutions in areas that are deemed not financially viable to roll-out fibre infrastructure,” Dazela says.

Competitive offers

Christopher Geerdts, senior telecoms consultant at BMIT, notes the benefits for an operator are that it can cover a suburb more rapidly with 5G than with fibre and, therefore, can get a faster return, especially if it has access to an existing high site.

He points out that although there is talk of 5G requiring a very high base station density, this does not apply to the 3.5GHz spectrum that Vodacom and Rain are using, and refers more to future 5G services.

“Once a suburb already has fibre, it is more difficult for an operator to sell 5G broadband services,” Geerdts says.

“However, customers will be attracted to rapid activation, where 5G activation is as fast as getting hold of a 5G modem, whereas customers often take weeks to have fibre extended into their premises. For operators, this means connecting customers without a ‘truck roll’ as customers can self-install their devices if the indoor signal is strong enough.”

For customers who have fibre coverage, Geerdts says, the current offers are very competitive, due to robust ISP competition at the service level; therefore, 5G is less appealing.

“The biggest limitation of fibre, though, is that it only serves a limited number of households in the country. If more spectrum is made available on a permanent basis, operators can expand 5G broadband services quickly through the suburbs.

“One of the big advantages of 5G is that when customers move, they can take their modems with them, either for 5G or LTE coverage. This flexibility is useful for tenants who are renting, or contractors who need business access in a building on a temporary basis, or nomadic users.

“Customers may also take 5G as a backup service if their primary service is fibre and they cannot afford downtime.”

Costly inhibitors

On pricing, Geerdts says Rain’s offerings are competitive, especially for customers wanting higher speeds.

“Vodacom’s pricing seems relatively expensive. The devices seem expensive, based on the purchase prices in Vodacom’s offers. The cash price of Vodacom’s least expensive unit is a costly inhibitor for mass uptake and even when amortised over 24 months, this pushes up the cost.”

Similarly, Dazela says initial prices from Rain show 5G will become much cheaper compared to fibre solutions.

“The average prices for 200Mbps uncapped FTTH packages comparable to Rain’s unthrottled 5G service clearly indicate 5G is already cheaper. The lower-priced capacity 5G data bundles are also expected to enter the market once this service goes mainstream.

“In the prepaid market, we expect the status quo to remain, where there will be no price discrepancy for 3G, 4G and 5G services. Users will simply be serviced by the network platform available in the area, without them even noticing they are hopping between network generation,” Dazela concludes.

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