The recent spectrum made available by ICASA was long overdue and is needed to unleash the promise of 5G. While industries already have clear strategies on how to leverage the increased access to 5G to benefit their customers and end-users, many may be wondering what the spectrum allocation means to them.

Rob Lith, chief commercial officer of Telviva

It starts by understanding how the spectrum allocation will affect 5G rollout and then what 5G really is.

One of the consequences of the unnecessarily long wait is that operators have had to push existing spectrum towards 5G services, which is not suited for high-speed broadband. In other words they have had to adapt and use what they had. This, by mere virtue of the engineering involved, has resulted in inefficiencies which you and I feel in coverage, quality and cost.

It’s almost as if 5G has become an elusive woodland fairy, because let’s be honest, many have not seen the 5G symbol on their phones. Now that spectrum has finally been allocated, there’s great hope that the user benefits and economic stimulus that has been promised will be unleashed.

We’ve all heard about the advances that can be made in the realms of automated vehicles, smart cities, medicine and remote surgeries, and of course, business automation and video and augmented reality conferencing.

How does 5G enable this?

It starts by understanding that 5G represents a big step – some would call it a giant leap – forward from 4G. Some key differences between the two tell this story fairly starkly.

Latency is broadly defined as delay before a transfer of data begins. With 4G, latency varies between 20 and 30 milliseconds. With 5G, it is less than 10 milliseconds but can be as low as one millisecond. A 4G network can handle a density of up to 2,000 connected devices per square kilometre, whereas with 5G that number is closer to a million. 5G has a 100bps/Hz spectral efficiency, whereas 4G hovers around 30bps/Hz. For traffic capacity, 4G networks make do with around10 Mbps/m2, whereas 5G enjoys 1000Mbps/m2.

4G offers maximum real-world download speeds up to around 100 Mbit/s, 5G on the other hand 50 Mbit/s to over 1,000 Mbit/s.

It’s clear that there is a giant leap forward and these numbers are more than mere flashy advertisements for the power of 5G. For mobile operators it means they can expand their service at greater capacity and speeds to better support not only users, but also the requirements of IoT (Internet of Things), autonomous vehicles, high-tech medicine, and of course the myriad applications for households and consumers.

What does it mean for your business?

South Africa is known to have high data costs. President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledged this when he discussed the spectrum auction in an opinion piece that doubled as a letter to the nation. However due to the very nature of our connectivity infrastructure, many businesses with remote sites rely almost entirely on mobile data. Beyond this, if employees work remotely, they may well live in an area that has not yet been connected to the world of fibre.

Initially we’re likely to enjoy slightly, though not drastically, reduced data rates. But in time the amount of data being made will have to increase with the faster speeds available, which drive rate reductions.

Lower data rates would not have a major impact on OTT (over the top) voice as this service consumes little data. On the other hand, video conferencing, which has enjoyed a massive surge in popularity and uptake since the onset of the pandemic, will become cheaper. Beyond this, the quality of video conferencing will be greatly improved as a result of greater speeds and lower latency. Interactive video conferencing and team collaboration will enjoy a major boost. It goes without saying that the sorts of technology being discussed in the same breath as the metaverse will all become more mainstream.

Businesses seeking to improve their efficiency and competitiveness are investing large sums of money in all sorts of sensors to deploy dashboards that monitor all aspects of operations, and then they rely on intelligent software to flag exceptions. This IoT, and any service or device that requires real-time tracking and monitoring, will be significantly improved as 5G is more widely available. Robotics is set to become even more prevalent, while robot software designed to carry out an array of autonomous tasks will get a major shot in the arm.

Businesses that have adopted a hybrid work approach will be all too familiar with the frustration of remote workers losing fast, stable internet during bouts of load shedding or other unforeseen circumstances. 5G will support working from home when fibre is not available without negatively impacting remote delivery, via video or other data-intensive work functions such as contact centre software that provides users with smart insights on the caller in real time. The increased rollout of wearable technology as a result of more 5G will boost a business’s ability to reach remote staff and so contactability becomes less of an issue.

Certainly, businesses will be able to enjoy the benefits across the suite of unified communications and collaboration (UC&C) cloud-based tools more seamlessly, where remote workers or even entire offices during unforseen outages, have a reliable and fast alternative.

The spectrum auction, and expected investments, mean that in an ideal world, a business will be able to automate any function, deploy smart communications platforms and delight customers accustomed to the digital world.

While this is certainly possible, the smart money would be on a measured expectation around reduced data costs. In addition to this, there is a significant investment required to activate 5G and so despite the popular view that there will be mass rollout of 5G networks, we may find that investment centres in regions and areas with the highest return on investment, not unlike the patterns of fibre coverage in the country. The number of base stations and other infrastructural requirements to set up 5G networks mean the business case will need to be sound.

Of course, we support the government’s intentions and hope that all bureaucracy, red tape and other obstacles are eradicated so that the country finally steps onto the 5G train. Many countries are already a long way out of the station! Beyond the obvious socio-economic benefits, businesses, too, will enjoy a step up into the global digital village.