Information current as of 19 December 2019
What is the state of 5G deployment in South Africa?
The roll-out of 5G has been delayed by the government’s reluctance to allocate the radio frequency spectrum required for the mass-rollout of 5G. In August 2019, the South African government released a spectrum policy directive, in terms of which the South African Communications Department prioritized the allocation of high-value spectrum for its proposed wireless open-access network (WOAN), as well as universal service and access obligations. The government opted not to deal with 5G spectrum licensing at this stage, promising a policy direction for 5G technology in 2020. The first licences to mobile network operators that will allow them to build large scale 5G cell phone networks in South Africa are expected to be released during 2020. Currently, various trials being conducted in the country for in respect of the deployment of 5G technology.
Which telcos and communications players are launching 5G services?
Due to the government’s decision to delay the release of additional spectrum, South African operators are mainly focused on upgrading infrastructure to ensure the delivery of 4G services. However, the following developments have taken place in connection with the deployment of 5G services:
- MTN, the biggest mobile network operator in Africa, partnered with Ericsson on 5G trials. The two companies signed a memorandum of understanding in 2017 to jointly develop 5G capacity in Africa. MTN and Ericsson performed the commercial 5G tests in South Africa in January 2018.
- Vodacom, South Africa’s biggest mobile network operator, entered into a memorandum of understanding with Nokia during 2017 to conduct trials using Nokia’s 5G technology.
- MTN has also partnered with Huawei on trials of 5G technology in South Africa. MTN and Huawei launched their first 5G trial in 2019.
- Rain South Africa (Rain), a mobile startup with an exclusive focus on data services, launched South Africa's first 5G network in selected suburbs in Johannesburg and Tshwane during September 2019. Rain intends to expand its 5G coverage area to Durban and Cape Town during 2020.
Vodacom and MTN have indicated that they were in a position to launch large scale 5G networks during 2019, but have been restricted by a lack of access to the necessary radio frequency spectrum.
Are there any public tenders for spectrum licences?
There aren’t any public tenders for spectrum licences at the moment. However, it is expected that the spectrum for 5G licences will be auctioned in 2020. The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), published an information memorandum on 1 November 2019 (ICASA Spectrum Memorandum) that sets out how it plans to license spectrum to mobile operators. Stakeholders have until 31 January 2020 to make written representations to ICASA in connection with the ICASA Spectrum Memorandum. The final format of proposed auction is dependent the outcome of the stakeholder engagements.
In terms of the ICASA Spectrum Memorandum, the following radio frequency spectrums available for auction:
- 2 X 30 MHz in the 700 MHz band;
- 2 X 30 MHz in the 800 MHz band;
- 1 x 170 MHz in the 2600 MHz band;
- 1 x 40 MHz in the 2300 MHz band; and
- 1 X 116 MHz in the 3500 MHz band.
What has the government said regarding spectrum licences for commercial use?
As stated above, the government expects a release of spectrum to take place during 2020. In October 2019, the South Africa Communications Department published its Policy on High Demand Spectrum and Policy Direction on Licensing of a Wireless Open Access Network (Communications Department Spectrum Policy). The Communications Department Spectrum Policy provides that the South African Minister of Communications may direct that a portion of unallocated high-demand spectrum must first be assigned to a network category of licensees known as WOAN and the remainder must then be assigned to other eligible licensees. Licensees will, as a consequence, be able to either apply for radio frequency spectrum from ICASA in relation to unallocated radio frequency spectrum made available by ICASA for this purpose, or licensees may seek to enter into a commercial relationship with a WOAN to utilize radio frequency spectrum licensed to a WOAN by ICASA.
Are the rules for 5G already drafted, and if so, what do they say?
There has not been specific legislation or rules drafted in relation 5G. However South Africa already has legislation and rules in place regulating the telecommunications licensing generally, such as:
- Independent Communications Authority of South Africa Act, 2000;
- Electronic Communications Act, 2005;
- Radio Frequency Spectrum Regulations, 2015; and
- Communications Department Spectrum Policy.
However, it is emphasised that there are no regulations specific to 5G. According to ICASA, specific 5G rules will be formulated once the 5G technology is established in South Africa and after thorough engagement with operators and technology vendors.
What are or would be the rules for granting competitors access to the new 5G networks, once they are deployed?
The ICASA Spectrum Memorandum proposes various alternative allocations of spectrum, with some of the spectrum being allocated to specific telecommunications licence holders and another portion being allocated to WOAN, the state-controlled open-access networks that are intended to improve competition in the telecommunications sector. Network operators will be expected to share radio frequency spectrum for 5G networks once that spectrum is made available. Where spectrum is assigned to one network operator, it would be required to offer wholesale open access to its network to other operators. As noted above, ICASA is still engaging stakeholders and has not finalised the rules for granting competitors access to the new 5G networks.