Rolling out high-frequency 5G challenging in South Africa — MTN and Vodacom

Rolling out 5G on the 28GHz band will be challenging for South African mobile network operators as the band is not recognised as an International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) band in Africa.

MTN has conducted trials to test 5G on the 28GHz band, and its executive for corporate affairs, Jacqui O’Sullivan, explained the challenges regarding its rollout on the band.

“Although MTN has done some trials on 28GHz, we would need millimetre-wave (mm-wave) bands to be supported for IMT in the regulation in order for MTN to scale deployments in the respective bands defined,” O’Sullivan said.

“It is important to note that the 28GHz band is an IMT band in Region 2 (the Americas) and hence has a developed eco-system for 5G (for that region).”

“It is, however, not an IMT band in Region 1 (Africa and Europe). Consequently, acquiring the relevant and necessary equipment type approvals may prove challenging to utilise for the deployment of 5G,” she added.

A Vodacom spokesperson told MyBroadband that the network operator was engaging with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) and the Department of Communication and Digital Technologies regarding the future identification of the 28Ghz band for IMT.

“A key consideration for Icasa would be the process and timeline for the migration of incumbent legacy services out of the 28GHz band prior to IMT allocation in South Africa,” the spokesperson added.

O’Sullivan also explained that 5G rollouts in mm-wave would be area-specific as it has a substantially smaller cell edge than 5G in the mid-band.

She further explained that MTN had been focused on rolling out 5G on its temporary spectrum, and would continue its efforts using its permanent frequency assignments now that the auction has concluded.

“Our focus has been on rolling out 5G using the temporary spectrum in the mid-band 3.5GHz, which will now continue with the assigned spectrum post the auction,” she said.

“5G requires spectrum in the low, mid and ultimately high band, above 24GHz.”

Jacqui O'Sullivan
MTN SA executive for corporate affairs Jacqui O’Sullivan

Vodacom explained that its focus was to enhance its 5G services on lower-frequency bands.

“Vodacom’s initial focus will be on the densification of our existing 5G services on the 700 MHz and 3500 MHz bands. The 700 MHz band is the best band currently available for extending 5G coverage in future,” a Vodacom spokesperson said.

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) announced the conclusion of the anticipated high-demand radio frequency spectrum auction on 17 March 2022.

MTN spent R5.2 billion to obtain 20MHz in the 800MHz band, 40MHz in the 2.6GHz band and 40MHz in the 3.5GHz band.

Vodacom, on the other hand, spent R5.4 million buying 20MHz in the 700Mhz band, 80MHz in the 2.6GHz band and 10MHz in the 3.5GHz band.

The company said that the R5.2 billion price it bid compares favourably with global benchmark averages of approximately $0.083MHz-POP — according to Coleago Consulting — for spectrum in similar auctions.

“This is the first time in approximately 17 years that spectrum has been released on a permanent basis in South Africa and increases MTN SA’s total permanent spectrum holdings from 76MHz to 176MHz,” MTN said.

“The spectrum has been allotted for a 20-year period and on a technology-neutral basis.”

MTN SA said it would use the spectrum to expand 4G and 5G connectivity and enhance the capacity of its network while also increasing its network coverage in rural, peri-urban, and urban areas.

Telkom has announced that it will forge ahead with its court challenge of the spectrum auction on 11–14 April, which could see the process nullified.

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Rolling out high-frequency 5G challenging in South Africa — MTN and Vodacom