Demand for high speed, low latency internet bandwidth is only going to keep on rising as we progress towards the end of the decade and beyond. More and more people are using the internet in South Africa every day, and they’re using it for more bandwidth-intensive purposes such as streaming video. By 2020, analysts believe there will be tens of millions of Internet of Things (IoT) devices in the country, and tens of billions worldwide.
One key solution to supporting vast numbers of connected devices and people over the last mile is the forthcoming fifth generation of mobile internet technology, or 5G. A group of technologies which promise download speeds of up to 20Gbps, with specific improvements over 4G/LTE for IoT deployments, the first commercial 5G networks are expected to launch in 2020.
Many trials have already taken place, most notably at the Winter Olympics earlier this year, and it should come as no surprise to know that South African mobile operators are already testing 5G base station technology.
One of the main improvements of 5G over 4G, says Etion Connect’s executive sales manager, Sean Vilas, is that it vastly improves the ability to communicate with high-speed vehicles, an essential step forward for autonomous cars and trains.
“5G will have a positive effect on all industries, though,” Vilas says, “The manufacturing industry will be able to have a higher autonomy, schools and universities will be able to do reliable remote conferencing and teaching and business will be less reliant on having real estate since most employees will be able to work from home.”
One key technology that is enabled by 5G is remote surgery, Vilas adds. Surgeons have been using robots to operate over long distances since 2001, but mobile theatres rely on low latency connectivity in order to be safe. The application of remote surgery in rural clinics could save lives.
To reap the benefits of 5G, however, it’s vital that the country continues to expand its fibre networks into more urban and rural areas. It’s impossible to reap all the benefits that 5G promises without having the capacity in the network leading up to mobile base stations.
“5G could have a very positive effect in rural areas,” Vilas says, “Because there’s a direct link between growth in connectivity and growth in revenue. But to get there, carriers have to expand their fibre infrastructure.”
Vilas says that he expects new business models to evolve which will drive the expansion of fibre and 5G into currently underserved areas.
“We need to look at how we work with local business owners to create demand for base stations,” Vilas says, “For example, by offering them connectivity in return for putting antennas on their roofs. It’s early days, but there are opportunities to make the rollout of 5G quickly profitable.”
The standards for 5G will be finalised at the World Radio Conference taking place in October and November next year in Egypt. Once that happens, Vilas comments, we can expect to see rapid deployments, including in South Africa.