Here's what you need to know about 5G in SA – including what it costs and where to find it

Business Insider SA
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  • Vodacom launched its 5G network this week, following the introduction of Rain’s network last year.
  • 5G is roughly ten times faster than the newest 4G, allowing speeds of around 200Mbps.
  • It’s much faster than fibre – for now.
  • Prices start from R899 p/m from Vodacom, but Rain offers slightly more expensive uncapped packages.
  • Here's what you need to know about 5G in South Africa.
  • For more stories, go to Business Insider's home page.

South Africans now have a choice of two 5G networks, after Vodacom announced this week that it had switched on its 5G network in parts of Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Cape Town.

5G is the newest iteration of mobile data standards, and is roughly ten times faster than 4G – and a hundred times faster than 3G.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which ratifies communications standards, put together a roadmap for it as early as 2015.

Countries like the UK and China started getting 5G networks last year. South Africa, though slower, is still ahead of the general adoption curve.

Here is what you need to know about 5G in South Africa.

The "G" stands for "generation", and each is a major leap

The first generation was voice, the second could handle SMS messaging, and 3G (which is still with us) can reach speeds of up to 2Mbps.

The newest version of 4G, LTE Advanced, can, in theory, reach hundreds of megabits per second but most users experience it between 10Mbps and 100 Mbps.

Rolling out 5G means a lot more cellphone towers, and that takes time

Due to the radio frequency that 5G uses, high-frequency waves which enable faster data speeds but don’t travel as far, it needs more base stations to work. Existing cellphone towers can be upgraded but network operators will also need to build more infrastructure.

SA’s network operators have been battling the government to get 5G running

The big mobile operators have been struggling for years to get permission to use the parts of the radio spectrum that 5G is best suited for, but most of it has so far remained unassigned. The government is due to auction off blocks of the spectrum later this year.

If you want 5G in SA, you can buy it from one of two companies – if you live in just the right place

Right now only data-only network Rain and Vodacom offer 5G at all, and then only in specific coverage areas, such as parts of Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Pretoria. If you’re outside a major city, you’re out of luck at the moment. And even within those cities, coverage is extremely limited. In Cape Town, for instance, coverage is only around Century City. In Pretoria, you’ll only get signal near Menlyn and Hatfield.

To check if you are in a Vodacom 5G coverage area, click here. For Rain coverage, go to its home page and scroll all the way to the bottom.

Vodacom’s launch of 5G is partly due to emergency coronavirus regulations

In April the government allowed access to some of the radio frequency spectrum best suited to 5G on an emergency basis to help fight Covid-19. The allocation is to help the operators cope with demand. The catch is that operators only get access until November, or until the end of the state of emergency

When this emergency allocation ends, Vodacom may rely on a “back-door” to access 5G-friendly spectrum

Vodacom recently announced a deal with Liquid Telecom to use their 5G network. Liquid owns the parts of the spectrum that formerly belonged to Neotel. In the case of Rain, they’re repurposing the parts of the spectrum formerly used by iBurst after they bought parent company WBS.

Vodacom says it won’t lose access to 5G after the regulations end

According to Vodacom spokesperson Byron Kennedy, “Vodacom will roam entirely on Liquid Telecom's 5G network once we no longer have access to temporary spectrum and until we get our own 5G spectrum. The loss of temporary spectrum will neither impact customer experience nor our 5G rollout.”

South Africa’s 5G speeds are no slouch

Both Vodacom and Rain boast speeds of about 200Mpbs. However, as the technology improves, speeds will improve. Rain has achieved speeds of up to 700Mbps in testing and peak speeds can reach up to 1Gbps. Eventually the hope is to reach speeds of 10Gbps.

Right now, 5G is a good deal faster than fibre

A typical fibre line is about 10Mpbs to 20Mbps, although it can go much, much faster – if you’re willing to pay. A 40 Mbps fibre line at Telkom costs R1,199 a month, and you will pay R917 a month for a 40Mbps fibre line via Afrihost and Openserve.

Both Vodacom and Rain offer 5G packages that are cheaper than fibre

Vodacom’s offerings start at R899 per month over a two-year period, and which is capped at 100GB per month. Rain offers an uncapped, month-to-month deal for R999.

There's just one smartphone in SA that can make use of 5G, and it's not cheap

Right now, only one smartphone in South Africa can actually make use of 5G, the LG V50 ThinQ. Vodacom offers one for R13,499, or R699 a month over 24 months. According to the company Vodacom spokesperson Byron Kennedy, “more will follow in due course. New devices need to be tested in conjunction with the manufacturer and certified by Vodacom as being within acceptable technical performance.”

You’re probably going to need to buy a new router if you want home access

Just like smartphones, routers also need to be 5G compatible. Both Rain and Vodacom bundle Huawei 5G routers in with their offers – the Rain version is meant to be installed outdoors. Vodacom also offers a Nokia 5G router. You’ll probably need to buy a new router, and can’t just reuse your existing one.

Fibre is not going anywhere

All that trenching in the roads to lay down fibre optic cable wasn’t a waste. Although fibre products are currently generally slower than 5G, it will eventually catch up. There’s no speed limit on fibre, says technology analyst Arthur Goldstuck. The only limitation (other than the speed of light) is in the equipment on either end of the fibre cable. “If you can afford it, you can get speeds of 1 gigabit right now,” he says.

“Over time our current fibre speeds will become multigigabit services” as the equipment is upgraded. “In fact, 5G will likely speed up this process due to increased competition.” It’s also likely that businesses will stick to fibre, he says, as they’re guaranteed service, and fibre speeds aren’t affected by the weather or distance from the base station.

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