MTN’s roadmap to 5G for South Africa

The network provider is hoping to bring fibre-like connectivity to smartphones by the end of 2019.

MTN’s outdoor 5G field test in Hatfield, Pretoria, this week was more than proof of concept. It was a statement of intent.

While the telecoms company’s 5G test – conducted in partnership with Huawei – grabbed headlines for being a first for the African continent, it also offered a showcase for what MTN consumers can hopefully expect in the next few years – superfast wireless connectivity that’s around 14 times faster than anything currently available.

Using 5G Fixed-Wireless Access on a tower in conjunction with Huawei’s 5G 28GHz mmWave Customer Premises Equipment, the test clocked download speeds of 520Mbps and uploads of 77Mbps, sufficient to provide stable and smooth streaming to four 4K TVs and a Virtual Reality (VR) presentation.

Beyond the appeal of streaming videos in 4K to a phone, however, 5G could offer massive benefits to South African consumers and businesses, offering fibre-like services to to mobile, improved connectivity to devices connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) and real-time motion control. What’s more, as the network grows, offering speedier and more reliable data transportation, data costs are likely to lower drastically.

5G connectivity streams entertainment to a VR headset as smooth as butter

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, MTN faces some rather big hurdles in its mission to roll out 5G in South Africa, not the least of which is the need for new spectrum allocation – the lifeblood of any mobile network. According to MTN’s Chief Technology and Information Officer (CTIO) for SA, Giovanni Chiarelli, the next generation services and technology powered by 5G will require massive spectrum capacity.

“[Spectrum] is a recurrent topic as it’s one of the main pillars on the road to 5G. The test [this week] was to demonstrate 5G connectivity through existing spectrum, but to fully exploit the potential of this technology, we definitely need new allocation,” says Chiarelli.

“I think it was a huge challenge to deploy 4G without a specific allocation for it, and, in essence reusing 2G and 3G spectrum,” he adds. “That space is already very crowded and it would be almost impossible to deploy the technology at its best without new spectrum being allocated.”

While MTN’s 4G roll-out was a challenge, its coverage has grown in leaps and bounds since it was first deployed. In 2016 only 51% of its consumer base had 4G coverage and this has grown to 81% in just under two years. MTN is hoping to have 5G rolling out by the beginning of 2019 with the first 5G devices arriving in the second half of that year.

There is significant work to be done in the meantime. MTN is heavily invested in the physical infrastructure in the form of radio units, but Chiarelli says that, for 5G, the network’s architecture needs to evolve.

“There’s a double component here,” he says. “Deploying radio units on the field is necessary, but there’s also a need to modernise the existing core and transport network to be at the base of 5G (delivery).

“There are many variables, sure, but we have almost 20 years of experience in deploying new technologies,” Chiarelli says. “The beauty of the telecommunications industry is that around every seven years there is a significant step forward.”

The 5G roll-out approach will be similar to that of 4G, hitting urban areas first, and then coverage reaching out to rural areas – but again, this could speed up or slow down depending on spectrum allocation. As the technology rolls out, not only will connectivity become more efficient and faster, it’ll become cheaper to use too.

“5G is simply more efficient as a standard,” says Chiarelli. “As more people adopt it, it will become more cost-effective.”

“At the end of the day, this effort is customer-driven, as there’s no point in driving this technology if there’s no market for it,” he says. “We’re confident that there is.”

Fibre-like connectivity on a smartphone? You bet there’s a market for it.

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