Telecommunications minister Siyabonga Cwele at the ITU World Telecon in Durban on Wednesday (Supplied, ITU)
  • South Africans can only expect a 5G rollout in 2020, telecommunications Minister Siyabonga Cwele says.
  • 5G is expected to bring speeds five times as fast as the current 4G network.
  • Eventually.

The first licences to cellular providers for the spectrum that will allow them to build 5G, or fifth generation, cellphone networks in South Africa are expected to be released by 2020, telecommunications Minister Siyabonga Cwele said on Wednesday. 

5G is expected to bring speeds between 5Gbps to 8Gbps, and up to 20Gbps in theory – compared to 4G LTE which has a maximum throughput of 1Gbps. 

Those kind of speeds are expected to dramatically change what is possible to do over a cellular connection.

READ: Vodacom just launched a super-fast 5G service in Lesotho – because SA's spectrum policy is a mess  

South Africa will only release 5G licences when the standards of 5G have been agreed upon by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the telecommunications body of the United Nations, Cwele said.

“I can’t licence something you can’t use. We still need to go to the World Radio Congress next year which will then have an agreement on the spectrum [for 5G],” Cwele told Business Insider South Africa on the sidelines of an ITU conference in Durban. 

“By 2020 we should be able to licence it, [but] we need a lot of work before we can licence it.”

He “congratulates” neighbouring Lesotho, which launched a 5G network in August.

Vodacom's 5G service in Lesotho is offering fixed-wireless speeds of 700Mbps – 35 times faster than the typical 4G connection in South Africa, and seven times faster than top-end residential fibre optic services.

"Until such time as 3.5GHz spectrum becomes available to Vodacom South Africa, this network will not be available to its customers," the company said last month.

The 3.5GHz spectrum band has been described as the "killer band" for 5G. It is particularly useful for high-throughput data services because of the density of information that can be transmitted over it, and because it penetrates walls well, making for good indoor reception.

Vodacom and other operators have been lobbying increasingly loudly and urgently for the release of the spectrum required for next-generation mobile services in South Africa, but to little avail.

READ: Huawei expects lower data prices in South Africa thanks to a new law

“In South Africa we are doing trials. We can’t launch something where there is no equipment and no international standards for it,” Cwele said. 

5G is being tested in countries around the globe.

The first rollout of a 5G network in the US is expected to start in 2019, and the first 5G enabled smartphones are expected to hit the market only in 2020, The Verge reported.

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