• Recent 5G tests show speeds of up to 20 gigabits per second.
  • Experts expect the 5G standard to be final by mid-2018, with devices arriving around mid-2019.
  • But the delay in migrating to digital television could make 5G costly in South Africa.

The successor of today's LTE, or 4G, promises speeds up to a thousand times faster than the best cellphone users can currently hope for, if recent testing by Ericsson and MTN is anything to go by: 20Gbps versus the current average 20mbps speeds of LTE in South Africa.

And it will be here soon. There is not yet a 5G standard, but that could change as soon as the middle of this year, Ericsson’s head of networks solutions Ahmad Husseini told the MyBroadband Underground Mobile Networking conference in February – and devices could follow in 2019.

But there is a catch: South Africa is lagging behind in shifting to digital television signals, and that is going to drive up the price of 5G.

5G requires radio frequency spectrum, which has become ever more scarce as demand demand grows for faster, better and cheaper mobile services. Data is expensive for many reasons, but the shortage of spectrum is an important one, and it will only get worse with 5G.

The global move from spectrum-inefficient analogue television signals to digital terrestrial television was supposed to free up just the kind of spectrum required for 5G. In South Africa, however, that migration has been an utter mess.

There are ways around a shortage of spectrum such as rejigging equipment to "refarm" existing spectrum, but Husseini noted that this is expensive. Densification, or building many more base stations, is even more expensive, as is advanced beam-forming layered with multiple input multiple output (mimo) technology.

All of which promises to make 5G more expensive in South Africa than it will be elsewhere in the world, as operators hike prices to earn back their investment in hardware that, with the right spectrum allocation, would not be necessary.

South Africa has always led the mobile world, MTN's general manager of engineering Zoltan Miklos to the MyBroadband conference.

"This is the first time we’re on the back foot."

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