South African operator Vodacom announced that it has switched on Africa’s first live 5G mobile network, in the South African cities of Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town. A further rollout is planned to cover other parts of the country. The network will support both mobile and fixed wireless services and is currently available on 20 live 5G sites, 18 of which are in Gauteng and two of which are in Cape Town. Effective immediately, Vodacom customers with 5G-enabled devices and within a 5G coverage area can access the new service.
Vodacom was recently assigned temporary spectrum by South African regulator ICASA for the duration of the national state of disaster due to the coronavirus pandemic, including 50 MHz in the 3.5 GHz band. The operator said it used the spectrum to fast-track its 5G launch. It also makes Vodacom the first operator in the country to activate temporary spectrum in South Africa.
The deployment of 5G will help Vodacom manage the 40 percent increase in mobile network traffic and the 250 percent increase in fixed traffic experienced during the coronavirus lockdown.
The 5G network deployed operates in the same frequency bands that are expected to be permanently assigned through an auction later in the year. Existing 4G/LTE tariffs for mobile and fixed will initially apply to Vodacom’s 5G service offering, with special 5G tariffs to be announced in due course.
While the pandemic has crippled businesses and entire economies worldwide, mobile telecom is one of the few industries that could be said to be benefiting in any way from the situation. While it certainly does not benefit across the board, as customers’ incomes go down and business clients go out of business, there can be no doubt that in some key respects the coronavirus lockdowns have boosted telecom operators. As we have written recently, the need to work from home and stay home in general has spurred dramatic increases in usage, both of data and voice services, mobile and fixed.
In the case of Vodacom, the increases in consumption—40 percent in network traffic and 250 percent in fixed traffic—have provided the occasion to go live with a planned 5G launch. The increased bandwidth and speed access will help the operator take this burden off its existing capacity.
The operator has been working on 5G for quite a while now, but it took the pandemic for the South African government to decide to allocate spectrum for it, and Vodacom now benefits from first-mover advantage—not only within South Africa but within the African continent itself. In 2018 Vodacom announced that it had begun modernizing its network to prepare for the deployment of 5G technology in South Africa, subject to the allocation of spectrum. In December 2019, Vodacom and Liquid Telecom reached agreements on managed network services and national roaming for a national 5G network.
What is essential now that the network has launched for the general public is to make sure that barriers to uptake are reduced as much as possible. It is the right thing to do for Vodacom to make existing 4G/LTE tariffs apply to 5G service for the initial period; that reduces the economic barrier for consumers and businesses. The further reduce it, there is a technological barrier to surmount—5G-enabled devices must be gotten into the hands of as many subscribers as possible, and at affordable prices.