Huawei recently announced that it expects to launch its first commercial 5G smartphone before the end of 2019.
The device will feature the manufacturer’s Kirin 980 chipset and upcoming Balong 5000 5G modem, which offers 5G capabilities in a package 1.3x the size of 4G modems.
This is in line with global expectations from major smartphone manufacturers, with mobile networks also expecting the first 5G-capable smartphones to launch next year.
However, while South Africans may be able to purchase these smartphones, they won’t be able to leverage their high-speed 5G connections in the immediate future.
Speaking in an interview with MyBroadband, Vodacom CTO Andries Delport said that mobile operators would not be able to deliver true mobile 5G at the time these devices release to the public.
Delport said that while the physical portion of Vodacom’s network is actively being prepared for 5G, the major obstacle to the rollout of the technology is the allocation of spectrum and the slow pace of digital TV migration.
“We are preparing the physical portion of our network for 5G,” Delport told MyBroadband.
“By the time 5G smartphones arrive about a year and a half down the line, a decent part of the network will be 5G-ready.”
“From a practical perspective, the spectrum part will not be there when 5G smartphones launch,” he said.
However, these devices will still be compatible with older technologies and will be able to leverage existing high-speed standards like 4G.
“When a device supports 5G, it is going to support other technologies,” Delport said.
He added that once additional spectrum currently locked up by TV broadcasters and the government is allocated, Vodacom will be able to deploy its 5G network at a rapid pace.
Delport said that while Vodacom was upgrading its 4G network to support 5G, there are also regulatory hurdles to overcome.
“You cannot install transmitting equipment unless you have the licence for the spectrum used by that equipment,” he said.
“The dilemma is that we cannot go ahead and install this hardware before we have the spectrum available.”
He added that there may be a way around this limitation, though.
“Some suppliers are selling radios which cover multiple frequency bands such as 700MHz, 800MHz, and 900MHz,” Delport said.
“If you are lucky enough to have some of these wide-band radios in the network you can circumvent this.”
Delport added that Vodacom would have some of these wide-band radios in its network by next year, but it is unlikely that digital migration would have occurred by then.
The slow pace of migration to digital TV has had an adverse effect on the growth of the South African telecommunications industry, and is now actively limiting the rollout of next-generation technology.
Mobile operators have been forced to refarm spectrum to optimise their 4G networks for the rapidly-growing amount of data moving through their networks, but this solution will not provide the resources required for 5G.
Until the digital terrestrial television project run by the government has been completed, and more spectrum allocated, South Africans with 5G smartphones will be relegated to existing 4G infrastructure.