Ask any mobile network operator or infrastructure provider what is holding South Africa back from implementing 5G (or improving 4G coverage) and they will tell you the same thing – spectrum.

While the equipment is ready to go and can be deployed (Vodacom deployed a network in Lesotho and Rain runs a 5G network on limited spectrum) local providers lack the spectrum needed for 4G expansion much less 5G.

But given that in three State of the Nation Addresses, President Cyril Ramaphosa has said that spectrum will be available soon, surely we’re nearly there, right?

“The Minister of Communications will shortly be issuing policy direction to the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa for the licensing of the high demand radio frequency spectrum,” the president said in 2019.

As it turned out, this actually happened because minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams published this policy in July 2019.

In addition to that, under her instruction, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) published its Information Memorandum For International Mobile Telecommunications Spectrum Assignment last year as well.

“The regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa, has undertaken to conclude the licensing of high demand spectrum for industry via auction before the end of 2020,” Ramaphosa said on Thursday evening.

With submissions for comment on the aforementioned Icasa memorandum having closed on 31st January, we expect to see news of licensing and an auction – as promised – before the end of the year.

So that’s it then? We should have spectrum by the end of the year?

Maybe.

A key feature in Ndabeni-Abrahams’ policy document was high demand spectrum being reserved for a wireless open access network (WOAN).

While the building of the WOAN is not bad in and of itself, it is now delayed until at least 2021.

“Because of additional requirements, the licensing of the Wireless Open Access Network (WOAN) is likely to be completed during the course of next year,” said Ramaphosa.

Our concern is that this delay will feed into yet another delay regarding high-demand spectrum allocation which in turn means an even longer wait for 5G to land in South Africa.

It’s worth remembering that Icasa had to report back to Ndabeni-Abrahams following the 2019 World Radiocommunication Conference about which bands are needed for 5G and how it will affect the current market.

Only then will the minister issue a policy regarding 5G at which point a similar song and dance to what we’ve outlined above, will happen again.

So we’re still rather far off 5G being widely available in South Africa, but the ball is rolling.

It’s a slow roll, but a roll nonetheless.

[Image – CC 0 Pixabay]