To bolster investment in Africa, regulators will have to make sure spectrum is available in a timely manner to enable innovation and competition, as well as ensure 5G services benefit consumers, businesses and industries.
This is according to a report jointly published by Ericsson and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), called Making 5G a reality for Africa.
“Regulators will have to determine the process they’ll follow to ensure mobile data growth and early 5G deployment is not hampered by spectrum requirements,” the report says.
The fifth-generation technology is expected to set new standards for high-speed, wide bandwidth, low latency wireless connections. Mobile operators in SA are preparing for the rollout of 5G but have for some time been saying 5G will not be possible in SA without additional spectrum being allocated.
We can expect to see 5G being deployed by global leading operators during 2019, addressing specific use cases. Ericsson believes 5G will become the mainstream ecosystem by 2022. Just last week, data-only network, Rain, told ITWeb it is planning for its commercial 5G service to be live in the first quarter of 2019. Rain will be use 3.6GHz spectrum which it already has.
Ericsson still predicts massive mobile growth in Sub-Saharan Africa over the next five years, with mobile subscriptions likely to exceed 900 million, total mobile data traffic growing by 11 times compared to today, and 75 million cellular Internet of things (IOT) devices being connected by 2023. This will be aided by the growth of 4G/LTE and 5G deployments if more spectrum is allocated.
“Decisions on where, when and how operators deploy 5G are not only driven by commercial considerations but also on the availability of spectrum, network equipment and devices,” the report said.
The authors say modern mobile networks need a variety of spectrum, with different frequencies providing different key components.
Low frequency spectrum tends to offer better coverage, travelling distances and giving in-building coverage, at the expense of data rates (ie, speed). High frequency spectrum offers shorter coverage distances but substantially higher data rates.
The authors expect 5G will need a mix of low, medium and high frequency spectrum, some of which will be ‘new’ spectrum and some ‘re-farmed’ spectrum, previously used by other services or even shared with existing services.
As the use of spectrum is a global phenomenon, the spectrum bands available in Africa should not be different from that of other administrations, the report says, “as it would be expensive to use without the economies of scale for network equipment and device manufacturers that come from harmonised bands”.
Ericsson believes governments in Africa should support 700MHz, 800MHz, 2.6GHz, 3.5GHz, 26GHz and 40GHz as 5G pioneer bands.
“The spectrum available for 5G will vary from market to market, according to whether it is already in use and the timing of auctions and licensing processes. Each spectrum band has different physical characteristics, which means there are trade-offs between capacity, coverage and latency, as well as reliability and spectral efficiency.”
Ericsson says these trade-offs need to be taken into consideration when planning 5G deployments, especially with regard to the mobile network operators’ (MNOs’) service focus, whether this is enhanced mobile broadband, massive IOT, critical IOT or fixed wireless access.
Spectrum allocation over time (Source: Ericsson).
Spectrum allocation over time (Source: Ericsson).
Last month, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) confirmed plans to license high-demand radio frequency spectrum by the end of March 2019, which will likely be used first for 4G, and it’s still unclear as to when higher bands will be released with 5G in mind.
Dr Ntsibane Ntlatlapa, manager of telecommunications and media competency at CSIR, says ICASA’s draft International Mobile Telephony roadmap, released for comment earlier this month, will likely give some indication of what bands the regulator is thinking of releasing for 5G in SA.
Although the report says 5G will need the release of new spectrum, it highlights it will also require the re-farming and/or re-use of current spectrum.
The report advocates for regulators to issue licences that are technology-neutral or unified licences, where MNOs can move one technology from a spectrum band and deploy a different technology, in that same band.
“In some countries, unfortunately, they link the frequencies to a specific technology. We believe it’s very important not to do this because it puts a barrier up right in the beginning,” says Chafic Traboulsi, VP and head of networks for Ericsson MEA.
Ntlatlapa says in SA, spectrum licences are technology-neutral, which is why telcos have been able to re-farm their previous spectrum for newer technologies like LTE.
He believes it is important for all African countries to adopt that model, where licensed spectrum is not tied to a particular technology.
“With the adoption of 5G, MNOs will require an increased amount of spectrum and therefore it is important that a country develop spectrum policies that will enable the fast adoption of innovative technologies and sustainable development of the mobile industry. This will help to realise maximum benefit for its citizens, particularly those that are unconnected,” the report adds.