Telecoms companies in South Africa are gearing up to improve mobile broadband services following the launch of the country’s first 5G trials, although sector regulations may delay rollout in the near future.
In recent months both Vodacom and MTN South Africa, the largest GSM operators by market share, announced the start of high-speed 5G tests in preparation for commercial deployment.
Vodacom, a subsidiary of UK-headquartered Vodafone, announced last November that it had formed a partnership with Finnish communications firm Nokia Oyj to undertake trials, while MTN South Africa is collaborating with Sweden’s Ericsson to pilot 5G applications and equipment.
MTN South Africa said it achieved download speeds of more than 20 Gbps with latency of five milliseconds during its first trial in early January, which is 100 times faster than 4G services. The results are the highest speeds recorded on the continent. The companies conducted the testing after receiving a temporary licence to operate 800 MHz of spectrum on a 15-GHz band.
Both Vodacom and MTN South Africa said their research would look at how faster connection speeds would not only improve telecoms connectivity, but also provide a boost to targeted areas of the economy. In addition to improving efficiency and safety in sectors such as agriculture and mining, 5G technology could support development of self-driving cars and remote robotic surgery.
Improved internet speeds drive demand for data
The 5G trials come as operators move to increase internet speeds on the back of rapidly rising demand for digital content and data services.
Following substantial investment in new 3G and 4G mobile broadband networks over the past five years, 3G coverage has become almost universal and 4G is accessible to almost three-quarters of the population, according to a report released in 2017 by Mobile research group GSMA Intelligence (GSMA-I). The introduction of low-cost, value-added data bundles have also helped operators expand into lower-income segments and drive up aggregate data use.
Last year Vodacom’s data revenue exceeded voice earnings for the first time, with data generating R6bn ($515.2m) in the fourth quarter, compared to voice’s R5.7bn ($489.3m). Meanwhile, MTN data for the first half of 2017 showed voice and data earnings almost level, at R8.2bn ($703.9m) and R8bn ($686.9m), respectively.
According to GSMA-I, 45% of the population has a mobile subscription and the overall mobile broadband penetration rate is 68%, making South Africa the continent’s second-largest mobile market after Nigeria.
Going forward, the two most important factors determining data and digital services take-up will be affordability and faster internet speeds, according to Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, an independent technology market research organisation based in South Africa.
"One can see massive appetite for faster internet access at the top of the market and cheap internet access at the bottom of the market,” Goldstuck said during a recent interview with international press. “With the appetite for fast internet access – especially to use services like Netflix and Showmax – ADSL isn’t good enough for people anymore if they have access to fibre."
Spectrum shortage could delay 5G rollout
While companies are looking to develop the necessary technology to offer faster services, regulations concerning next-generation infrastructure have proven challenging.
Ongoing discussions over preferred implementation methods have meant the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa, the sector regulator, has yet to allocate telecoms operators with the high-demand spectrum for 4G.
This has led companies to reallocate 2G and 3G spectrum in order to provide 4G LTE services, sparking concerns that if a solution to the current situation is not found, the implementation of 5G – which is expected to be first rolled out commercially in Japan by 2020 – could be further delayed in South Africa.
During the announcement of MTN’s 5G launch, Giovanni Chiarelli, the company’s chief technology and innovation officer for the South African branch, said, “Once again we call on the government to urgently release the much-needed spectrum that is required in South Africa to lower the cost of data, and drive growth and development for all South Africans.”
Releasing additional spectrum could also provide a solution for the continuing urban-rural divide in coverage. In August Vodacom reported that while 91% of the population in urban areas has access to its LTE coverage, only 44% of those in rural areas had the same access, citing a lack of available spectrum as a chief contributor.