Picture: 123 RF / ALEXLMX
Picture: 123 RF / ALEXLMX

 

As SA’s telecoms operators start trials of "fifth-generation" (5G) connectivity and exploring the best applications for the technology, experts warn that a full-scale rollout hinges on access to spectrum, or radio frequencies.

International standards are yet to be finalised, but 5G generally refers to connections with exceptionally low latency (or delays in transferring data), ultra-fast download speeds and better network efficiency, among other attributes.

The number of use cases for 5G is seemingly endless. For consumers, 5G technology is an enabler of technologies such as virtual and augmented reality, as well as driverless cars — all of which require significant bandwidth and practically no delays in data transmission. It is also envisaged that this more reliable network will have a wide array of health-care and industrial applications, including in "smart manufacturing".

5G expected to significantly improve customers’ mobile and wireless broadband experience

It will provide "large-scale connectivity to support the millions of IoT [Internet of things] devices expected to be introduced over the next 10 years", says Jacqui O’Sullivan, corporate affairs executive at MTN SA.

"Though the exact performance specifications and use cases will vary based on spectrum availability, MTN expects 5G to significantly improve customers’ mobile and wireless broadband experience, and to enable access to a digital world of futuristic mobile applications," says O’Sullivan.

Mobile operators are testing the waters through tie-ups with technology companies. This month, Vodacom said it has partnered with Nokia to test 5G, and MTN announced a partnership with Ericsson. The partnerships aim to identify potential 5G applications for SA, and include lab and network testing.

Telkom has explored 5G with Huawei and is laying the groundwork for a launch, says CEO Sipho Maseko. "One of the reasons we want to have a ubiquitous fibre network is that it then makes deployment of 5G a lot easier, because we’ll use the same infrastructure to carry 5G traffic."

In addition to connecting base stations with fibre, the shift to 5G requires new antenna technology — which improves the range of higher-frequency spectrum, boosts capacity and improves network performance — and modifications to core equipment.

Commercial launches are not expected until at least 2019 — after global standards are put in place, equipment is fine-tuned, and compatible devices are brought to market — though many operators have committed to "pre-commercial" launches.

However, SA’s 5G ambitions depend on access to suitable bands of spectrum, which remain in short supply given the country’s painfully slow migration from analogue to digital television broadcasting.

The delays mean the valuable 700MHz and 800MHz bands — known as the "digital dividend spectrum" — remain out of reach for the telecoms industry.

In the interim, the industry is eyeing higher-frequency bands — including 2,600MHz, 3,500MHz and 28,000MHz — though these have shorter ranges and are less able to penetrate buildings. The result is that more base stations must be built when using these spectrum bands.

"If you want to cover the whole country, you have to roll out the 700MHz and 800MHz bands," says Vodacom chief technology officer Andries Delport.

Vodacom’s 4G network (the predecessor to 5G) is available to 91% of SA’s urban population but just 44% of those in rural areas. The imbalance is the result of insufficient access to low-frequency spectrum, says Delport.

"In theory, we have run out of spectrum because we would have been able to give the entire country 4G if we had the spectrum to do that. And we’ll sit with the same issues with 5G, so we have to ask: if this country wants 5G, what are we going to do about 5G spectrum?"

He adds that while European countries are preparing to auction off 5G spectrum, SA has yet to distribute dedicated 4G spectrum.

MTN’s O’Sullivan says while some strides have been made to facilitate access to high-frequency and digital dividend spectrum, "more needs to be done by the regulators to speed up the allocation of the 2,600MHz frequency band, as well as lower-frequency bands in the near term".

In addition to the stalled digital TV migration, SA’s spectrum impasse is also the result of disagreements between regulators about the best way to grant access to radio frequencies. The Independent Communications Authority of SA has favoured an auction approach, while the telecoms department prefers an open-access model as this would not exclude smaller operators.

Kalpak Gude, president of the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance, a global organisation that pushes for laws to facilitate the efficient use of spectrum, says auctions can contribute to spectrum shortages when winning bidders are given the right to exclude others from using those bands.

"To auction more spectrum to carriers under the same models of the past, and assume that this alone will bring connectivity to areas of the country that don’t have it, is hard to justify," Gude says.

"If you want connectivity in those areas, we’ve got to figure out new models. One of those, which we’ve been working with the SA government on, is to use more unlicensed spectrum — in this particular case TV white space."

This involves creating a real-time database that identifies unused television "white space" so as to free it up for telecoms providers, particularly in rural areas.

Gude adds that "LTE-Unlicensed" can also play a role in extending 5G coverage. LTE-Unlicensed involves carrier aggregation, or combining licensed spectrum with unlicensed spectrum used by Wi-Fi routers, in order to increase bandwidth.

This can be used to deliver 5G connectivity within individual buildings, factories, stadiums and campuses.

hedleyn@bdfm.co.za

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