(Getty)
  • Vodacom says it is now providing a fully commercial, standards-based 5G service in Lesotho.
  • It is offering fixed-wireless speeds of 700 Mbps – 35 times faster than the typical 4G connection in South Africa, and 7 times faster than top-end residential fibre optic services.
  • South Africa is now three years behind schedule to turn off old-style television signals, which take up the spectrum used for 4G services.

Vodacom is now selling a standards-based, commercial 5G service in Lesotho, it announced on Saturday.

Two companies in Lesotho are already using the service on a fixed-wireless basis, Vodacom said.

The service is offering speeds of slightly over 700 Mbps. That is seven times faster than high-end home connections from fibre providers such as Telkom and Vumatel in South Africa – and 35 times faster than the typical 4G cellphone service measured in SA.

See also: Vodacom says its data was suddenly a lot cheaper in the last three months – and it is thrilled about that

Upgrades in software and devices are expected to take the 5G speeds to 1Gbps in the near future.

Although various 5G tests are being conducted elsewhere, including in Soweto, this is the first 5G service sold commercially and not based on proprietary technology, Vodacom says.

The same technology is already installed in South Africa – but will not be available commercially any time soon, because the radio frequency spectrum needed is not available.

"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 bluntly.

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.

See also: Cell C says its data is 28% cheaper than a year ago – but it is charging more for voice

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.

Under a global agreement to prevent interference across radio bands, South Africa had been due to switch off analogue television services (and replace those with digital terrestrial broadcasting) in 2015. In July of this year the government appointed a panel to help speed up the move to digital terrestrial television. There is no indication yet when the switch-off will actually happen, despite a new 2019 government deadline.

The spectrum used by analogue television signals is ideal for 4G cellphone services, and operators are desperately short of the spectrum needed to support 4G in South Africa – especially in rural areas.

A crucial Bill that will allow new spectrum allocations was approved by Cabinet this week, after a nine month delay. It can now move to Parliament for debate.

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