5G, or Fifth Generation networks are being lauded as the vehicle which will launch technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT) and blockchain based applications into mainstream use – and with good reason. 5G promises significantly faster speeds than its predecessor, 4G. But with 4G only recently being put into proper real play, how ready is South Africa for the next generation network?
5G still a way off
As demonstrated by recent trials, 5G is still in the process of having its technical standards ratified and adopted by the industry. Hardware OEMs such as Ericsson, Nokia and Huawei are forging ahead with early stage trial releases, while operators are conducting their own trials and laboratory testing.
However, we are still a long way from 5G becoming commercially available in South Africa, with estimated timelines of two to three years before we start seeing real uptake.
A question of cost and spectrum availability
5G networks are expensive to deploy. With many operators only in the middle to final stages of their 4G rollout, investing in the infrastructure required to facilitate 5G is a costly task. However, there are many gaps in both mobile and fibre networks where 5G investments make financial sense, such as remote locations or areas with a high concentration of IoT interest and investment.
Frequency spectrum allocation is another potential impedance to 5G delivery. There is already a shortage of spectrum available for 4G network operators, and South Africa’s spectrum regulator, ICASA, will need to work closely with government and stakeholders to ensure that similar shortages and allocation delays do not occur. For the time being, there is little clarity on 5G spectrum allocation and it is likely that until a clear framework is in place, 5G rollouts will be hampered.
5G could answer many of Africa’s – current connectivity concerns. Particularly in areas where fibre is unable to reach or too costly to invest in, 5G uptake will be massive. Currently, the speeds and quality of service that 5G promises are limited to users and organisations that can afford fibre.
5G mobile connectivity will enable small business owners and people in rural communities to leverage applications and sites that they have previously been unable to. Of course, this means that the pricing of 5G will need to be carefully evaluated. Data prices in South Africa have a reputation for being too high – these will need to reduce in order for 5G to fully cater to the market. Government will play a large role in controlling data prices, especially as it will seek to use 5G for its own community connectivity projects. It will fall to ICASA to work closely with government and stakeholders to ensure that 5G data prices are affordable.
5G is also expected to spur South Africa’s digital evolution through support of technologies such as IoT and advanced mobile applications. To date, the uptake of these technologies has been relatively slow when compared with the rest of the globe. A lack of affordable, quality mobile connectivity has been the main hurdle to realising their potential, especially in industries like critical service delivery and healthcare, who stand to benefit massively from IoT devices.
The demand for IoT and mobility will put pressure on operators and ICASA to formalise 5G plans, and stick to rollout schedules where possible.
Despite potential delays and hurdles to overcome, Africa should get ready for 5G. Operators and device manufacturers alike, are pushing for 5G to become a reality. Another driver is the score of technologies that stand to benefit businesses across all industries. Businesses investigating IoT, blockchain technology, cryptocurrency, and mobile applications should be preparing to run these off of 5G as soon as it becomes available.
By Eckart Zollner, Head of New Business Development at the Jasco Group