South Africans have to think carefully before buying the latest smartphones for the sole purpose of using their 5G network capabilities, although their utility could improve in the near future.
While there is currently a selection of 5G smartphones available from Samsung, Huawei, and LG, most of these devices are still very expensive.
If you wish to be one of the early adopters, the cheapest option currently available is Huawei’s P40 Lite 5G, which retails for R9,499, putting it at the far-end of the mid-range.
However, this is still around R3,000 more expensive than the LTE version of the P40 Lite, which offers all of the same features, bar the faster network speeds.
To pay around 46% more for 5G support with this smartphone becomes even more unreasonable when taking into account that the 5G ecosystem in South Africa is still very immature.
Vodacom and MTN only launched their 5G mobile networks in June, and these are only available at a few scattered sites in major cities.
Vodacom’s 5G mobile network can be accessed in small parts of Pretoria, Johannesburg, and Cape Town, while MTN’s 5G is only offered in Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, and Cape Town.
As shown in the maps below, this coverage is minute, even more so if compared with the claimed LTE population coverage of over 90% for both Vodacom and MTN.
Vodacom 5G coverage
MTN 5G coverage
Limited benefit for smartphone users
Even in cases where a user does have 5G coverage, the potential speed and latency benefits are limited, particularly for the average smartphone user.
To truly utilise its capabilities, you would have to make use of data-demanding or latency-sensitive applications.
While use-cases such as video streaming and mobile gaming fall into these categories, LTE is generally still more than fast enough for solid performance in both of these cases.
It offers up to 150Mbps download speeds and latencies of around 20ms-30ms.
The faster downloads speeds may be a great benefit, but using mobile data for large files is also not recommended.
Average mobile data costs in South Africa are substantially more expensive than fixed broadband, and a lack of experience with 5G speeds could have you running up bills between one balance check and the next.
What operators say
We asked Vodacom and MTN why mobile users should buy the latest 5G smartphones.
MTN executive for corporate Affairs Jacqui O’Sullivan said it is certainly worthwhile to upgrade to a 5G smartphone if you live in an area with coverage.
Additionally, forward-thinking MTN customers will be ready to benefit from the company’s investment to deliver more widespread 5G connectivity in future.
“MTN has invested R11 billion in network infrastructure in 2020 alone. Our investment is mainly focusing on upgrading our existing infrastructure to be 5G ready,” O’Sullivan explained.
“We have proactively been modernising our radio network to be 5G ready and have also been upgrading all elements in the value chain specifically the transmission and core networks that are an integral part of a 5G network,” she added.
The role of the spectrum auction
Another important step towards great 5G availability will be the auction for valuable high-demand frequency spectrum taking place at the end of March 2020.
This will likely see mobile operators get licensing for spectrum that will allow them to introduce or increase their 5G coverage.
“The expansion of 5G will be a function of acquiring 5G spectrum. We are in the process of responding to the ICASA ITA and will also take part in the high-demand spectrum auction,” O’Sullivan noted.
O’Sullivan said the areas and capacity which 5G will offer will be a function of the spectrum acquired and the bands it is acquired in.
“We envisage 5G in capacity mid-range bands will be deployed in main metros and dense urban areas due to growing data demands,” she noted.
However, 5G might take a while to reach certain rural and urban areas, as the sub-1GHz spectrum up for auction will still be unavailable for use by mobile operators until the migration of analogue to digital TV broadcasting is completed.
According to the latest information from the Communications Department, this may only happen by the end of 2021 or in 2022.
Vodacom did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.