Why Lesotho has 5G but South Africa doesn’t

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This morning Vodacom celebrated the launch of their first standards-based 5G service in Lesotho.

The firm announced the news a few weeks back so we’re not going to spend too much time talking about the technicalities of the solution which you can read more about here.

Instead, we’re going to complain, and complain about the fact that the smallest country in Africa, Lesotho, is now more forward thinking than the second biggest economy in Africa – South Africa.

So what is causing us to lag behind our African neighbours? Sadly the answer is government.

Spectrum is the new buzzword except it’s not

We’ve covered the calls for spectrum from network operators such as Vodacom for some time and by now the calls are starting to feel a bit long in the tooth, but it’s for good reason that networks won’t let that bone go.

This morning chief technology officer at Vodacom Group, Andries Delport, explained that unlike with 4G where the firm could re-farm spectrum from the 2G and 3G bands, that is not possible with 5G.

Where 4G can operate on the 900MHz, 1800MHz, 2.1GHz, 2.3GHz and 2.6GHz spectrum 5G requires 700MHz, 3.5GHz and 28GHz. The problem is that government, as the custodian of spectrum, must release and assign this spectrum.

The reason 5G is limited to these spectrums is that the standard associated with the technology calls for very specific things such as low latency, greater capacity and faster speeds. Each 5G frequency listed above has a specific purpose that other spectrum just cannot handle effectively given the 5G standards outlined by 3GPP.

What the spectrum for 5G is used for.

Government needs to move faster than it is

While standards for 5G are still being finalised there are standards right now that allow network providers to begin building and rolling out 5G connectivity.

This coupled with technology being available from firms such as Huawei means that technologically speaking the world is just about ready for the rollout of 5G.

“The first 5G sites would take about a month to build depending on logistics,” says Delport when asked how long it would take Vodacom to rollout 5G connectivity once spectrum was assigned.

“Our biggest dependency is spectrum and rollout depends on when countries realise this and assign the spectrum,” said Delport.

But Vodacom is working closely with government and the CTO says that the pace at which government is moving to make 5G spectrum available makes him confident that we won’t be left behind.

“The last time we were assigned spectrum was 2004, 14 years ago and that’s a long time but there were never really these positive talks around spectrum compared to what we see today,” says Delport.

Those talks include the Electronic Communications Amendment Act which is currently before Parliament. This act would give government the ability to assign the spectrum needed for 5G among other things and many are hopeful that this process will come into effect soon.

But here’s the thing, Lesotho’s government released the spectrum Vodacom needed to make 5G a reality for Letsang Diamond and the Central Bank of Lesotho.

As a result this allows these two firms to explore things such as remote working by way of VR thanks to ultra low latency of 1ms. It allows these firms to leverage the benefits of IoT, artificial intelligence and more applications we simply cannot imagine.

The key differences between 4G and 5G from a technical standpoint.

Should these firms be able to see the benefits of 5G (which we’re confident they will beyond faster internet) and take those learnings to government, Lesotho could potentially release spectrum en-masse and out run South Africa.

We’re damned proud of Lesotho’s government for being so forward thinking and yes, we are slightly jealous. Our hope is that SA government sees what our neighbours and Vodacom have done and becomes jealous, and fast tracks this process of spectrum.

It’s worth remembering that South Africa was among the first countries in the world to rollout 2G and 3G connectivity. While 4G was a bit hit and miss we can’t afford to fall behind the rest of the world.

We have all the pieces we need to make 5G a reality now, let’s not sleep on that shall we?

Brendyn Lotz

Brendyn Lotz

Brendyn Lotz writes news, reviews, and opinion pieces for Hypertext. His interests include SMEs, innovation on the African continent, cybersecurity, blockchain, games, geek culture and YouTube.