MTN's head office in Johannesburg. Picture: EPA/KIM LUDBROOK
MTN's head office in Johannesburg. Picture: EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

MTN says its collaborations with Ericsson on fifth-generation (5G) connectivity suggest the new technology could be used to raise mining safety standards.

The mobile operator expects 5G to become commercialised in SA in late 2019 or 2020, in line with international time frames.

In addition to ultra-fast network connectivity, 5G will mean lower latency — or delays in transferring data — which is crucial for enabling technologies such as driverless cars, remote surgery and augmented reality. It could also improve safety in the local mining industry, which recorded 73 fatalities in 2016.

In response to questions about 5G enabling driverless vehicles and "smart ventilation" in the mining industry, which contributes 8% of SA’s GDP, MTN said: "In underground areas, where safety conditions are unclear or questionable, mining vehicles can be deployed remotely and controlled by skilled operators from the safety of the surface."

Automated mining vehicles, controlled from a centralised server using a 5G network, might also become a reality, as could smart ventilation systems.

"Ventilation systems require large numbers of sensors, collecting huge amounts of data related to underground conditions. This data must be analysed as quickly as possible to ensure the continued safety of miners, and the enormous capacity of 5G makes this big data analysis possible," MTN said.

Furthermore, 5G-connected machines could be deployed in place of people following a blast, or in areas where air quality is a concern.

Ericsson’s 5G mining-technology research suggests mines could also implement "connected rock-bolt" technology, where rock bolts are armed with sensors that provide information about vibrations to ensure the environment is safe.

To facilitate the roll-out of 5G, the industry says it requires access to additional spectrum, or radio frequencies. Mobile operators will need "blocks of hundreds of megahertz (MHz), or even gigahertz (GHz)", according to MTN.

"We need the capacity that comes with additional spectrum, thus, once again, we call on the government to urgently release the much-needed spectrum required in SA to lower the cost of data and drive growth and development for all South Africans," said Giovanni Chiarelli, chief technology and information officer for MTN SA.

SA’s low-frequency spectrum remains tied up in analogue TV broadcasting. As such, the industry is also eyeing higher-frequency bands. MTN said it was engaging government about the desirable 3GHz to 6GHz band.

MTN and Ericsson’s 5G trials have recorded a peak throughput of 23-gigabits per second (Gbps), with less than 5-milliseconds of latency. Meanwhile, Vodacom is testing 5G technology and exploring potential applications with Nokia.

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