Liquid Telecom is one of only a few networks in South Africa that have radio frequency spectrum available to roll out 5G, and it plans to use it.
“Only three companies have spectrum: Rain, Telkom, and Liquid,” the head of strategy for Liquid Telecom South Africa, Willie Oosthuizen, told MyBroadband in an interview.
All three companies will no doubt make use of their spectrum advantage. Rain already announced the launch of the first commercial 5G services with Huawei in September, while Liquid Telecom and Telkom have yet to make a move.
Liquid Telecom announced in February that it would provide 4G roaming services to MTN.
“This includes LTE services to fuel the growing demand for high-speed mobile broadband. The wholesale roaming service will be made available across Liquid Telecom’s network nationwide,” Liquid Telecom said at the time.
In addition to these plans to provide 4G roaming, Oosthuizen said that they have “big plans” for 5G.
Liquid Telecom has access to spectrum in the 800MHz, 1.8GHz, and 3.5GHz bands. Their 800MHz and 3.5GHz bands make a particularly formidable pair, Oosthuizen said.
The low-frequency 800MHz band is good for providing wide coverage in rural areas, while the higher-frequency band is good for providing capacity in places with higher population density. The lower frequencies are also better at passing through walls and providing indoor coverage.
When asked whether Liquid Telecom plans to build a 5G network with the aim of having retail network operators like Vodacom and MTN roaming on it, Oosthuizen could not comment.
“Those are some of the options. There’s definitely intention to monetise all of our spectrum, but it’s still very early days,” he said.
Operators like Liquid Telecom, Rain, and Telkom that have spectrum available on which they can roll out 5G services are at an advantage over other mobile network operators.
Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, and Cell C have pleaded with ICASA for years to release unassigned spectrum for them to use. Their opinions on how spectrum should be assigned may differ, but the networks all agreed that the spectrum needs to be released.
While the process to assign additional spectrum for 4G and 5G networks is finally underway, it will take a long time before it is finalised.
Minister of Communications Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams has directed ICASA to investigate and report to the Minister on the spectrum requirements of 5G in bands lower than 6GHz and the millimetre wave (mmW) bands.
The investigation should cover the affected bands, the required ecosystem to support 5G in these bands, and the implications of the licensing of these bands.
The minister said this report should be provided to her within six months after the 2019 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-19), which ends on 22 November.
ICASA, in the meantime, has published an information memo to solicit opinions on its plans for auctioning off 4G and 5G spectrum, and helping the minister to create a national wireless open-access network.
It has set a deadline for 31 January 2020 for feedback, and emphasised that it is trying to set things up so that it can move quickly to license the spectrum.
However, there is still an invitation-to-apply process and spectrum auction to go through. Some of the spectrum ICASA wants to auction off is also still being used in analogue TV transmissions. This will only become available when South Africa completes its migration to digital TV.
Until all of this has been finalised, Liquid Telecom, Rain, and Telkom are in a position to roll out 5G while the other network operators wait for spectrum.
Rain already has an active 5G service and is planning to expand its coverage. It could be a wasted opportunity if Liquid Telecom and Telkom do not follow suit.