Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

Mobile network operators are taking advantage of the temporary allocation of spectrum to ramp up the rollout of 5G network.

In April, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa), the telecom regulator, assigned temporary radio frequency spectrum to operators in an effort to tackle communication challenges related to the Covid-19 pandemic, valid until November.

Spectrum refers to the radio frequencies on which data and information are carried.

5G, which is the fifth generation of mobile data technologies, is said to be about 10 times faster than 4G and 100 times faster than 3G.

Vodacom used its recently assigned spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band, to fast-track the 5G launch, making it the first major operator to activate temporary spectrum.

“Consumer interest in our 5G service has been in line with internal expectations and the initial feedback from customers who have used Vodacom’s 5G service is extremely positive, says the mobile operator’s spokesperson, Byron Kennedy.

SA has hailed the prospects of 5G mobile technology and what it could bring in terms of economic growth and advancement for years.

Data only operator, Rain, takes credit for being the first in the market to introduce 5G with its launch of fixed wireless products in September 2019.

Rain tells Business Day that the response to its 5G launch has been extremely positive, “especially considering that only parts of Gauteng have access to it”.

Despite Rain having first-mover advantage, one could argue that 5G would only become a mainstream feature in the country when the large operators — MTN, Telkom, Cell C and Vodacom — started offering the service.

Vodacom became the first, having launched its service in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town at the start of May. This was done using new temporary spectrum allocated to the company as part of government’s response to increased telecommunications demand brought about by the national lockdown as more people stayed and worked from home.

MTN is expected to roll out its offering later in June.

These launches come under less-than-ideal circumstances as consumer incomes are currently under pressure due to lockdowns that have left consumers strapped for cash, making it harder to justify a switch to what may be perceived as an expensive means to access the internet.

At the same time, businesses to whom many experts say 5G is best geared towards given applications like automated manufacturing or the “internet of things,” are doing everything they can to conserve cash.

To this end, Rain, of which Patrice Motsepe’s African Rainbow Capital Investments holds about a fifth, says there has been “an even more positive uptake” when it added a more affordable “standard 5G” unlimited access service for R699 to its product range, in addition to its “premium” version costing R999.

With the addition of a more affordable option, “we saw a very noticeable increase in uptake for the unlimited home premium product. It became clear that customers also value choice,” Rain says.

Vodacom’s pricing shows that it is actually R300 cheaper per month for 5G than for 4G. For example, their 5G fixed internet plans start at R899 a month for 100GB anytime data and 100GB “night owl” data, compared to R1,199 per month for over 24 months, for the amount of data on 4G.

Chen Lei, president for the Southern Africa region at Huawei, says a new way of doing business is taking shape across sectors, one characterised by remote work, distance education, remote healthcare, online shopping and mobile money.

“This new paradigm is driven by vastly greater data consumption, facilitated by the mass connectivity of 4G/5G technology,” he says.

As Kennedy says, the most significant immediate benefits of 5G technology “include the quicker deployment of broadband connectivity services with fibre-like speeds and the increased network capacity to handle the continued growth in data traffic.”

In the last few months, China — where the coronavirus is said to have originated — has taken advantage of this increased capacity for patient testing and monitoring.

A white paper by advisory firm Deloitte finds as a result of 5G features such as high speed connection, high reliability and low latency, the healthcare system in that country has benefited from improved response times, patient monitoring, data collection and analytics, remote collaboration and resource allocation, for the pandemic.

The paper, titled “Combating Covid-19 with 5G: Opportunities to improve public health systems,” notes that the effectiveness of communication and data exchange has been essential in screening for infected individuals and controlling the outbreak.

5G technology is still in its infancy, though it is welcome to see that it is actually helping in the fight against coronavirus and not just another “nice-to-have” in the long list technologies that make up modern-day living.

The true picture of adoption will become clear as operators start to release subscriber data in future financial results releases. Until then, it will be exciting to see what other uses 5G will have and how much this new generation will help to further drive down the cost of internet access in SA.

gavazam@businesslive.co.za

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