Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. Picture: GCIS/KOPANO TLAPE
Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. Picture: GCIS/KOPANO TLAPE

Commercial deployment of super-fast fifth-generation (5G) mobile internet is set to start as early as 2020, communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams said. 

5G is generally seen as promising wider coverage, more stable connections, and download speeds up to 20-times faster.

The technology also emphasises making better use of spectrum or the radio signals set aside to carry data over the air, and enabling more devices to access the mobile internet at the same time.

In a written reply to a question from the EFF, which was published in parliament on Monday, Ndabeni-Abrahams said in line with international developments, government expects 5G commercial deployments to take place from around 2020 in SA.

“[I] will give full and further details of the roll-out when [I] make the pronouncement on the policy direction,” the minister said.

Picture: 123RF/Serhii Yaremenko
Picture: 123RF/Serhii Yaremenko

Replying to another question from the EFF, Ndabeni-Abrahams said government has been involved in a global multilateral process under the auspices of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to identify and allocate radio frequency spectrum for 5G. This process will be concluded at the ITU World Radio Conference which will take place at the end of 2019.

In his state of the nation address (Sona) in June, President Cyril Ramaphosa said the government would in July issue a policy directive to the communications regulator to commence with the licensing of high-demand spectrum, as it moves to tackle the high cost of data.

The high cost of communication in SA has largely been blamed on a lack of competition and the “spectrum crunch”.

A McKinsey report published in 2018 highlights that network costs could double as operators strive to meet demand for increased capacity and deploy 5G. But, according to the report, many elements of current 5G technology are built on 4G networks, rather than representing a complete departure — and that means mobile operators can take an evolutionary approach to infrastructure investment.

“For instance, operators could begin by upgrading the capacity of their existing 4G macro network by refarming a portion of their 2G and 3G spectrum, or by acquiring additional spectrum when available,” the authors of the report said.

Nonetheless, the report states, even if new spectrum is introduced, mobile operators will need to increase their infrastructure investment significantly to overcome certain limitations.

“Over the long term, the new spectrum may facilitate large-scale adoption of unlicensed access. Once that occurs, operators will face additional challenges related to controlling spectrum access.”