The long road to 5G in South Africa – IOL

The long road to 5G in South Africa – IOL


Photo: Image by Mohamed Hassan/Pixabay

CAPE TOWN – The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) depends to a large extent on connectivity. Almost all 4IR technologies intended to make our lives easier, such as artificial intelligence, robots, self-driving cars, augmented reality, and the Internet of Things (IoT), all require high-speed, always-on Internet connections.

To keep up with the immense increase of connected devices, vehicles, and streaming video, the mobile industry is working hard on the fifth generation (5G) wireless networking technology. 5G is theoretically capable of speeds up to 20 Gigabits per second (Gbps) as compared to the current 4G LTE, which has a maximum throughput of 1 Gbps. This is more than 600 times faster than current 4G speeds of mobile networks and 10 times faster than the fastest optical fibre network in South Africa. With 5G connectivity, it should be possible to download and ultra high definition video of 4K-quality in 25 seconds.

5G technology will primarily have two major applications in the first years of deployment. In the first instance, 5G will be used for mobile connectivity by devices such as smartphones and 5G mobile modems (hotspots with Wi-Fi). Secondly, 5G will be used for fixed-wireless access (FWA) providing homes and businesses with broadband Internet in place of a wired ADSL or optic fibre connection. 

The new 5G service will operate in the traditional and new cellular radio frequency band in the low- (below 1 GHz, e.g. 700 MHz), mid- (1-6 GHz, e.g. around 3.5-3.8 GHz) and millimetre-wave (24-86 GHz, e.g. 28 GHz) ranges. Initially, smartphones and modems will predominantly make use of the low- and mid-range frequencies, while the millimetre-wave with its much higher bandwidth will be reserved for FWA.

Although higher frequencies such as millimetre-wave provide much higher speeds and capacity to transfer data, they have limited geographical coverage and also experience difficulty in penetrating walls or certain types of glass. Therefore most FWA devices will have to use external antennas. See the included figure for the 5G spectrum trade-offs. 

5G spectrum trade-offs (Source: IEEE)

About 20 handset vendors, for example, Samsung, LG and Huawei, indicated that they would launch 5G-ready handsets in 2019. Due to the additional component costs for the 5G smartphone, it could cost about R750 more than a 4G phone. Apple enthusiasts will regrettably have to wait until 2020 for a 5G iPhone according to Apple.

Unfortunately, South Africa is lagging behind in the global connectivity sphere, even trailing behind Madagascar in mean optic fibre speed. Deloitte Global points out that 72 operators worldwide were testing 5G in 2018 of which 25 will launch their 5G services mostly in cities by the end of 2019 and another 26 operators will launch in 2020.

The only company in South Africa to launch its 5G commercial network during February 2019, is the data-only network operator Rain. They were able to launch the 5G service in Johannesburg by using the 3.6 GHz spectrum already licensed to them. South Africa’s more established mobile operators, including Vodacom and MTN, are unable to launch 5G services until more spectrum is licensed to them by the communications regulator ICASA.

And this is the major reason why South Africa is trailing behind the rest of the world in deploying 5G services. Over the years government, and in particular the department of communications, has dragged their feet in freeing up and licensing more frequencies. Operators are therefore still waiting on ICASA to assign radio frequency spectrum for 5G networks. MTN chief technology and information officer Giovanni Chiarelli recently said: “South Africa is one of the most constrained countries in the world from this perspective.” Unless the government ensures that 5G spectrum is released quickly, it will be the first time South Africa is completely left behind when a new generation of wireless technology is released. Even Lesotho already has a fast 5G network of 700 Mbps provided by Vodacom.

Although 5G technology is already installed and has been tested in some places in South Africa like Soweto, it will not be available commercially soon, since the radio frequency spectrum needed is not available, in particular, the 3.5 GHz band. Unfortunately, due to poor management within the department of communication, South Africa has not adhered to the worldwide agreement to switch off analogue television services and to replace it with digital terrestrial broadcasting in 2015. 

Despite a government-appointed panel in July 2018 to speed up the move and a new deadline of July 2020, there are no guarantees in the light of the previous poor performance of government. In fact the digital restacking (revising channel plans and moving broadcasters out of the analogue bands) after South Africa has switched off analogue television, could easily take up to two years, thus delaying the allocation of prime radio frequency to the second half of 2022 or beyond. In fact, the much-awaited 4G-spectrum auction will finally (and hopefully) take place only later this year!

The licensing of the higher 5G frequencies (24.25 to 86 GHz) will only be considered by the government after the World Radio Communication Conference in November 2019. However, there is no reason why ICASA cannot already license underutilised and unallocated bands in the 3.3 to 3.8 and 26 GHz bands. 

The contentious and highly contested Electronic Communication Bill (ECB) has further complicated 5G deployment. Among the changes the bill dealt with was the introduction of a wholesale open access network (WOAN), which was part of a larger debate on how scarce resources such as 4G and 5G spectrum should be assigned in South Africa. It was heavily criticized by the telecommunications industry and was seen as the government’s nationalisation of the radio spectrum.

Recently, the minister of communications has withdrawn the Bill until after the general elections in May 2019 to allow time for further consultation. Since ICASA needs the Bill or at least a policy direction before proceeding with the licensing of the 5G spectrum, the withdrawal of the bill therefore raises concerns that there will once again be serious delays in the allocation of high-demand spectrum to mobile network operators.

The impact of these recurring delays on the economy is severe. Worldwide it has been demonstrated that the release of spectrum mostly lead to cheaper and faster mobile data services in the country. If the government is serious about investment in South Africa, it will have to ensure that spectrum is made available as soon as possible to enable innovation and competition, as well as ensure that 5G services benefit consumers, businesses and industries.

The most noticeable benefits of 5G are the faster speeds. In the lab the fastest speed achieved has been 1 terabit per second and in the field 35 Gbps. Unfortunately these test speeds is never a good indicator of real-world speeds. 20 Gbps is probably a much more realistic peak speed expectation and is remarkably faster than the 22 to 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) offered by MTN and Vodacom on 4G, the 14 Mbps of Cell C and Telkom, and even many fibre solutions in South Africa at an average of 6 to 39 Mbps depending on the Internet Solution Provider used. 

However, in the initial years peak speeds of more than 1 Gbps will only be possible if the user is close to the transmitter and if the network is not busy or overloaded as is often the case.

But speed is not the only benefit of 5G networks. Another benefit is lower latency – the total time it takes for a data packet to travel from a device to the network and back. 4G latencies in South Africa are currently 29.1 milliseconds (ms)(Vodacom), 33.11 ms (MTN), 36.44 ms (Telkom) and 37.24 ms (Cell C), while 5G networks is expected to have a latency of less than 10 ms. Issue a command now on a smartphone — like starting a Google search — and the response is not exactly immediate. A lag of 33 to 37 ms is common, partly because signals often must pass between different carrier switching centres. 5G, which uses newer networking technology, was designed to reduce latency to a few milliseconds. 

The 5G speeds will be particularly noticeable in the streaming of higher quality video or the significantly shorter video download times when downloading a movie. But for the average consumer and even enterprise user, and for most current real-world applications, there is little practical difference between one-tenth of a second and one-fiftieth of a second (100 ms and 20 ms, respectively). 

Over time, however, ultralow latency may matter a great deal for Internet-of-Things enabled applications, autonomous vehicles, and performing remote surgery with haptic feedback. These applications will require both ultralow latency and ultra reliable and fast networks.

Perhaps not in the next few years but somewhere in the future, we would experience a much faster world.

Professor Louis Fourie is the deputy vice-chancellor: Knowledge & Information Technology – Cape Peninsula University of Technology. The views expressed here are his own.

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