If you’re into smartphones or mobile tech, then you’ve heard everyone, from Samsung to Huawei and even LG, talking about their upcoming 5G phones.
Since most of the chatter about 5G has been by smartphone manufacturers, is it safe to assume that it just means faster data speeds on your 2019 smartphone, or is there more to it than that? I spoke to some of the key players in 5G – Vodacom and Huawei Enterprise – in South Africa.
Popular Mechanics: How do you explain what 5G is, and why it’s important to the general public?
Vodacom: The biggest benefit is faster speed, lower latencies and a truly connected society. 5G will be much faster than 4G LTE, thanks to both its ability to handle massive data speeds with low latency. 5G will give Vodacom the ability to deliver broadband to homes and businesses without the need to install fibre infrastructure in many instances. Its capability to support more connections across a large number of devices will also create a world of opportunity for IoT devices.
Initially, 5G will allow us to do two things a lot better compared to our current 4G network. The first is to provide much faster speeds – speeds up to twenty times faster than our current 4G network; namely going from speeds of up to 1 Gbps, to multiple Gbps. 5G has much higher capacity than 4G, and will make it more efficient for operators to carry large volumes of data traffic. On the latency side, the ultra-low latency requirements of 5G will reduce latency between devices and applications on the network side from 50 ms to between 1 and -10 ms. This will drive faster connectivity within 5G use cases involving smart cities, smart traffic management and mission critical control of factories, among others.
5G deployment in South Africa is initially going to be driven by enhanced mobile broadband capabilities, e-education, remote healthcare and those types of use cases that remain relevant for the South African market. Fixed-line broadband penetration is extremely low, and 5G will enable us to bridge this gap using mobile technology.
Another exciting 5G use case is Industry 4.0, which is the current trend of adopting automation and technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing and Cognitive/AI, within the digital-services space. Deploying a 5G network will be dependent on getting new spectrum.
In the future, 5G will essentially facilitate the next era of IoT referred to as ‘Massive IoT’. This era will not only bring with it the connection of billions of devices, but will also introduce us to new technologies. Vehicles will connect to other vehicles and traffic lights on the road to exchange data, alert drivers to potential collisions or bottlenecks and even change the timing of traffic lights. Furthermore, in the event of an obstacle on the road, the information gathered from the smart (or connected) city and roads could be conveyed to the smart car in an instant.
Exciting new technologies such as Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality will also become mainstream.
PM: How far along is your public 5G roll-out in South Africa?
Vodacom: Vodacom is ready to launch 5G in South Africa now and believes it is important to do so as early as possible to keep up to date with the rapid innovation and 5G deployments happening across the world. We have already launched 5G in Lesotho where the required spectrum was made available by the government.
Once the appropriate spectrum has been assigned, wide-scale public roll-out of 5G would become possible. Further upgrades on our network are also planned to support advanced features in upcoming 5G standards such as network slicing, which will allow for different various vertical use cases around Massive IoT, enhanced broadband and ultra-low latency described in the previous question to be served on the same physical network infrastructure, but each with their own logical network separation to ensure the different requirements on speed and latency can be met for different use cases.
PM: What are you doing with regards to data security on the 5G network?
Vodacom: We spends hundreds of millions of rands every year on cyber security to ensure that our network and customers remain protected. We also have a dedicated network-security centre, which deploys world-class technology. Some of the security enhancements unique to 5G that we will implement will also include the following:
• Enhanced identity privacy to protect against IMSI catchers (an eavesdropping approach used for intercepting mobile-phone traffic and tracking location data of mobile-phone users).
• Improved user traffic integrity protection to mitigate tampering and redirection.
In addition, the reassessment of other security threats such as Masquerading (a type of attack where the attacker pretends to be an authorised user of a system) have also been taken into account for 5G, and will lead to further security enhancements on Vodacom’s network.
PM: What are some of the unexpected use cases for 5G in South Africa, other than fast internet for watching Netflix or downloading content?
Vodacom: In the short term, the roll-out of 5G will be about carrying data more efficiently and helping us to reduce the costs to support data growth. We expect the development of advanced use cases to create new revenue streams, enabled by 5G in the near future.
Potential use cases in South Africa could extend into remote healthcare, e-education and even connected cars. With the low fixed-line penetration in SA, 5G can be used to increase the number of households with access to a broadband connection, and this will be a contributing factor in bridging the digital divide and creating a digital economy that is in line with government’s ambitions of embracing the fourth industrial revolution.
PM: Will 5G be offered as an alternative to fibre in areas where fibre is not available?
Vodacom: 5G can mirror the capabilities of fibre connections, however, we expect 5G and fibre to be used interchangeably in future, depending on the geography and user density of the area where it is needed. For example, in the region in Lesotho where we launched 5G, it was easier and more cost-effective for us to deploy a broadband service using 5G than laying fibre infrastructure.
PM: Will 5G revolutionise IoT in South Africa?
Vodacom: 5G will facilitate the Internet of Things (IoT) on a mass scale. IoT will see billions of devices connect and communicate with each other, with little or no human interaction in generating, storing and the analyses of data. 5G will allow us to expand the pool of connected devices, such as connected cars, wearables, drones etc.
PM: Will the cost of 5G be significantly higher than current data costs?
Vodacom: We don’t expect data costs to be more expensive than they currently are, as 5G is a more efficient technology when compared to 4G and 3G technologies.
It is also too early to quantify as 5G will only be launched in South Africa once spectrum becomes available, and pricing will be dependent on whatever innovations might be prevalent in the market at the time.
PM: When can we expect to see the first 5G handsets arrive in South Africa for public purchase?
Vodacom: 5G smartphones are not yet commercially available for consumers. We don’t expect to see a massive uptake of 5G smartphones initially.
As economies of scale gain momentum from global 5G deployments and consumer uptake, we expect the cost of 5G enabled smartphone devices to reduce and accessibility to increase. We expect to see the first 5G enabled smartphones introduced internationally towards the second half of 2019. We will go through a similar trend as experienced for previous 2G, 3G and 4G technologies.
Based on talks with Vodacom, it’s clear that 5G is a massive leap forward in mobile connectivity, but is Africa and South Africa ready to adopt this new technology, and how much work has gone into setting up infrastructure to prepare the country for it?
According to Huawei Enterprise South Africa, spectrum availability, regulatory support and a healthy industry ecosystem are key to the success of commercial 5G.
Consumers must also be encouraged to adopt 5G devices says David Chen, Vice President of Carrier Business Group, Huawei Southern Africa Region. But in Africa, smartphone use is very low mainly because of cost. In South Africa, which has the highest rate of connectivity in the Sub-Saharan region, only 34 per cent of mobile subscribers are using smartphones.
To increase smartphone use and advance mobile broadband development, network operators need to offer affordable smartphones coupled with an innovative business model. ‘This will benefit consumers and carriers who will see an increase in revenue from data services,’ Chen adds.
‘Good network coverage and an improved user experience together with affordable data prices are all important factors needed to create a healthy environment to accelerate the development of 3G/4G-based mobile broadband, while waiting for 5G.’ says Chen.
According to the company, LTE is key if networks across the African continent want to build a future-orientated network to fully embrace 5G. ‘We think LTE is a crucial step in the road to 5G. This must be supported by a healthy ecosystem of affordable smartphones, competitive tariffs and a rich content offering.’ continues Chen.
This is why Huawei unveiled its end-to-end (E2E) 3GPP-compliant 5G product solutions ranging from core network, to the bearer network, to full-scenario 5G wireless products and terminals, following the announcement by 3GPP of the completion of 5G NR standardisation Phase 1 (NSA NR) in December 2017. NSA-based 5G deployment not only allows operators to smoothly evolve to 5G, but also ensures a good user experience when customers are out of 5G coverage and in Gigabit LTE network coverage.
Most networks around the globe who intend to deploy 5G start with Non-Standalone (NSA) based 5G architecture where the 5G radio base station is anchored on LTE. ‘In this mode, 5G still uses the LTE core network,’ says Chen.
According to Ericsson’s 2018 Mobility Report, there are 7.9 billion mobile subscriptions across the globe, with smartphone-associated subscriptions accounting for more than 60 per cent of all mobile phone subscriptions. This number is set to rise to 8.9 billion by the end of 2024 thanks to the global roll-out of 5G.
With such vast changes expected in the tech landscape thanks to 5G, it’s clear that this is about far more than just no buffering when streaming your favourite Netflix show. 5G is a vital component of the fourth industrial revolution, and is set create a host of yet unknown opportunities and improve the way we (and our technology) connect with each other.