Why South Africa’s networks need new spectrum for 5G

If South Africa does not release additional wireless network capacity in the form of radio frequency spectrum, mobile carriers will not be able to launch 5G services in the country.

This is because 5G requires much more spectral bandwidth than earlier technologies, MTN, Telkom, and Vodacom explained to MyBroadband.

When networks around the world started rolling out LTE technology, and it became clear that the government would drag its feet, South Africa’s networks refarmed their existing frequencies to deploy the new technology.

“Refarming” refers to migrating services out of a specific band of radio frequencies so that it may be used for something else.

Essentially, operators switched off 2G and 3G services in some of their frequencies to make space for LTE.

Most of South Africa’s mobile networks have spectrum in the 900MHz, 1,800MHz, 1,900MHz, and 2,100MHz bands.

Telkom does not have a 900MHz assignment, but it has a significant chunk of bandwidth in 2,300MHz. The assignments in 1,900MHz and 2,100MHz are paired to effectively function as one band.

Vodacom and MTN started refarming spectrum in their 1,800MHz assignments, while Cell C moved 2G subscribers from its 2,100MHz band to 1,800MHz, and 3G subscribers from 1,800MHz to 900MHz.

Telkom launched its first LTE services in the 2,300MHz band, then later refarmed some of its 1,800MHz band.

Refarming for 5G not possible

While Cell C believes it will be able to refarm its existing spectrum to roll out 5G services, the other three networks say this is not possible.

“The current spectrum assignments are not adequate to address the current and growing data demand, especially in a developing economy such as ours,” MTN told MyBroadband.

“Due to limited spectrum, we refarmed existing spectrum to accommodate current mobile technologies. This has been challenging, because we are trying to manage customer experience with limited radio spectrum.”

For 5G, the bandwidth requirements begin at 50MHz per channel, depending on the frequency band. MTN said this is far larger than current mobile spectrum assignments.

“Spectrum allocation remains one of the critical challenges in bringing down data costs. For [our 5G] trials we used existing microwave assigned spectrum in the 28GHz band in areas where it would not interfere with existing wireless systems,” said MTN.

“This is not sustainable and hence we welcome any plan to release spectrum for current and newer technologies.”

Vodacom provided similar feedback, saying that 5G requires entirely new spectrum bands – with much larger bandwidth assignments for meaningful network deployment.

New spectrum must bring new competition

Telkom agreed that new spectrum will be needed, but said it must be assigned so that it stimulates competition against Vodacom and MTN.

“Although all mobile frequency bands can be used for any technology, the amount of bandwidth needed for 5G – hundreds of MHz – necessitates the assignment of mmWave spectrum in the bands above 24GHz,” said Telkom.

This will be discussed as part of the World Radiocommunication Conference, where the standards for 5G will be finalised.

Telkom said it is critical that any spectrum coming to the market must improve competition, by allowing smaller operators an opportunity to compete.

Now read: South Africa can’t wait for 4G spectrum stand-off before starting on 5G

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Why South Africa’s networks need new spectrum for 5G