Spectrum allocation for new wireless technologies has always progressed slowly in South Africa, but this has not stopped local networks from competing fiercely over resources.
The government’s ineptitude in enabling digital migration has held the local telecommunications industry back for years, but there have been some small steps in granting local mobile networks additional spectrum.
The Department of Communications recently published a policy directive on the assignment of spectrum, stating that mobile operators such as Vodacom, MTN, and Telkom would have access to new spectrum, but that the WOAN would be given priority.
This spectrum will be helpful in improving 4G capabilities as well as lowering data prices, but there is still no news on 5G spectrum assignment.
Vodacom, MTN, and Telkom have expressed interest in 5G technologies and trials, although the closest network to implementing an active 5G network is Rain, which said it would launch its 5G technology in September.
When the government and ICASA eventually decide to dole out spectrum for 5G networks, there is one tranche which will be highly sought-after: the so-called “golden band” for 5G spectrum.
This valuable slice of spectrum lies within the C-Band, and comprises a frequency range of around 3.3 – 3.8GHz.
Many countries around the world are employing this spectrum band to deliver their 5G services, making it highly valuable for mobile operators.
When assigning spectrum in this band to networks, it is important for mobile operators to be given substantial, contiguous pieces of spectrum, according to Vodacom managing executive for technology strategy, architecture, and innovation Nicholas Naidu.
“For 5G, you can’t have small allocations of spectrum to each operator,” Naidu said. “You need big chunks to enable 5G applications.”
He added that the spectrum within this band has not been earmarked for 5G yet, but it was expected that ICASA will do this in the future.
When this spectrum is eventually allocated for 5G technology, South Africans can expect mobile networks to fight over the available resources in the “golden band” just as fiercely as they have over other important resources.
Telkom one step ahead
The “golden band” is not wholly unoccupied, however – Telkom and Liquid Telecom already have a tranche of spectrum within this band.
“In South Africa right now, there are only two licensees in the 3.3GHz – 3.6GHz band: Telkom and Liquid Telecom,” Naidu said. “Their spectrum licence is an FDD allocation.”
This means that Telkom and Liquid Telecom will need to migrate their spectrum to a TDD (Time Division Duplex) allocation before it can be used for 5G applications within this band.
“ICASA is engaging with incumbents in that band to switch to TDD,” he said.
Naidu stressed that it is important that ICASA license this spectrum for 5G and enable networks to begin building their 5G solutions.
“A number of countries around the world understand the importance of licensing 5G spectrum to participate in the fourth industrial solution,” he said.
“It is very important that we do it sooner rather than later.”