Only 20% of SA has 5G coverage, is that a bad thing?

  • The Department of Communications and Technologies’ Thabiso Thukani said local networks should try to achieve 40 – 50 percent 5G coverage.
  • At present only 20 percent of SA’s population has 5G coverage.
  • Census 2022 data released this week reveals only 60 percent of South Africans have internet access through a mobile device.

During the lockdown of 2020 brought about by fears of the spread of COVID-19, the digital divide was put into sharp relief. While some could make use of ecommerce services, continue working remotely and stream entertainment, many more couldn’t.

As 4G/LTE reached critical mass in other parts of the world, many areas of South Africa still have to rely on 3G connectivity today. While 3G can get you online, many of today’s online platforms demand high-speed internet connectivity such as the speeds offered by fibre, 4G and 5G.

We mention 5G purely because it’s the next step in connectivity, but the fact of the matter is that 5G isn’t near ubiquitous enough for most South Africans to even consider.

Speaking at the ICASA 5G Forum meeting in Johannesburg this week, a representative for the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT), Thabiso Thukani gave us an overview of the current state of 5G in the country.

“South Africa has certainly taken its place under the sun amongst the countries that are deploying 5G technology. That is well and good. ICASA’s report on the state of ICT sector in SA released in March 2023 states that the National 5G population coverage in 2022 stood at 20%, with rural population sitting at 0%, rural provinces such as the Free State, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, and Northern Cape are still adversely impacted,” Thukani said.

“As the Department, we challenge the telcos and OEMs present here today strategize and ensure that their infrastructure investments include rollout of 5G even at these provinces. While acknowledging the high capital expenditure capex of deploying 5G networks, propose that we should soon reach at least a 40-50% or more national 5G population coverage,” he added.

Surely though, instead of grandstanding about a technology most South Africans would need a new device to make use of, we should focus on improving access to basic internet connectivity.

In August, SK Telecom in South Korea reported that 5G services had really failed to live up to expectations that were touted ahead of its availability. Indeed, we heard no shortage of how 5G would enable remote mining with less than 1ms latency or instantaneous downloads. While 5G is fast, we’re yet to see the future those who built the tech that drives 5G promised us.

The DCDT rep appears to be aware of this as well.

“I am interested to know what use cases have been deployed in South Africa thus far or which use case this forum intends to propose for deployment. The economic development, creating space more entrepreneurship, increased job opportunities, and innovation can only be realized if we roll-out out use cases,” Thukani commented.

And he’s absolutely correct there. Without unique ways to leverage 5G, it’s just another mobile connectivity technology, which is fine, but not something we should chase before every South African has access to better connectivity standards.

As the DCDT representative notes, deploying 5G can be costly and we’d argue that trying to implement 5G when 4G does the job just fine is a spending exercise that can be delayed.

The data gathered during the Census 2022 revealed that 21.1 percent of South Africans don’t have access to internet services. The good news is that 60.5 percent of those surveyed have a mobile internet service.

To answer the question then, the low 5G coverage in South Africa isn’t good, nor is it bad. It detracts from the real problem though which is that internet access isn’t as ubiquitous as it should be and that really should be DCDT’s focus.

[Image – Michael Förtsch on Unsplash]


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