GSMA: “South Africa will lead the increase in 5G activity expected in sub-Saharan Africa”
According to a recent GSMA trade association survey report, the increase in 5G activity expected in sub-Saharan Africa will be led by South Africa, “the most advanced market in the region.” The report also states, however, that mass deployment and adoption of 5G in Sub-Saharan Africa are still several years away,” mostly due to the cost of 5G infrastructure.
Further, not only are operators in the region facing high implementation prices, they also do not expect to be able to pass along those price increases to their price-conscious consumers. Because of this, enterprise and public institutions are expected to be the first adopters of emerging 5G networks. Adoption will most likely take the form of 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) points acting as hotspots, and in a region with very low fixed broadband penetration, 5G has the potential to fill a critical infrastructure need.
South African enterprises are expected to implement 5G technology in areas such as real-time analytics and the internet of things.
5G can rely on higher radio frequencies, meaning the networks have to be denser than previous-generation networks, which only exacerbates South Africa’s challenge of funding and building enough base stations to provide adequate coverage.
In addition to the challenges around cost, South African operators are also being met with consumer resistance to 5G in the form of Stop 5G South Africa, an organization of supporters from more than 31 major South African cities that is fighting to thwart the deployment 5G antennas around the world and 5G satellites in space. While the organization is international, the South African faction has made headlines recently, as the city of Durban joined the protest last week.
Despite these setbacks, some South African network operators, like those below, are keeping their sights set on the long-term, and are continuing to achieve deployment and coverage milestones.
Since its 2018 launch, Rain has made a name for itself among heavy data users in South Africa. Rain created even more buzz when it became the first available commercial 5G network in Africa in September 2019. The network is currently available in Johannesburg and Tshwane, with the operator hoping to expand into Cape Town, Durban and other areas in 2020.
The fixed service is called “5G at Home,” and uses a Huawei 5G home router and transmits on Rain’s licensed spectrum in the 3600 MHz band. When combined with the Non-Standalone network architecture, the spectrum allows Rain to offer significant coverage without the need to construct a large number of new sites, which of course, helps offset the high cost of building new infrastructure.
Rain’s service claims download speeds up to 700 Mbps.
MTN South Africa
November was a busy month for MTN South Africa as it launched a C-band 5G trial with Huawei and then days later, selected Ericsson as its 5G products and solutions supplier.
MTN is using Ericsson’s 5G New Radios (5G NR), basebands and MINI-LINK microwave transmission to enhance network quality and user experience. Additionally, the technology vendor has also provided MTN with an Ericsson Cloud Core network, including 5G Evolved Packet Core (5G EPC) and User Data Management (UDM).
In addition to those announcements, MTN and Chinese telecom company ZTE showcased Africa’s first live video call using 5G network technology at AfricaCom 2019 that same month.
Giovanni Chiarelli, chief technical & information officer for MTN South Africa commented that “5G will enable transformation as fixed wireless access means high quality, increased capacity and greater reliability” for its South Africa customers.
According to MTN, the operator plans to to have a commercial 5G network between 2020 and 2022, and will prioritize applications relevant to South African, including Enhanced Mobile Broadband, Fixed Wireless Access and IoT.
Liquid Telecom, which supplies wholesale coverage, announced recent plans to add a 5G wireless network to its existing fiber offering, and is aiming for early 2020 availability in all major South African cities.
Because Liquid has 56 megahertz worth of spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band, the operator is able to move ahead with its 5G launch, even has most of the country’s domestic operators continue to wait for the opportunity to bid for their own 5G spectrum licenses.
In a statement, Liquid said that its 5G wholesale network “will help accelerate the evolution of the fourth Industrial Revolution in South Africa” by providing connectivity “up to 10 times faster than 4G.”
Vodacom South Africa
In August 2018, Vodacom launched Africa’s first commercial 5G network in Lesotho on 3.5GHz spectrum. At the time of the launch, two companies were already using the fixed wireless service. The operator explained that it has also installed the same technology in South Africa, but because of the lack of available spectrum, the 5G network will not be commercially viable any time soon.
The South African regulator, ICASA, has yet to decide 5G licenses plans, and those operators not lucky enough to already have access to 3.5 GHz band, like Vodacom and MTN, have been lobbying aggressively for its release. The 3.5GHz spectrum band, often described as the “killer band” for 5G, is particularly useful for high-throughput data services because of its ability to penetrate walls transmit highly dense information.
It appears that MTN and Vodacom will have to wait until next year for the chance to bid for the unallocated 116 megahertz of 3.5 GHz spectrum, despite both telecom’s claims that they’re ready for deployment now.