A woman uses her mobile phone in front of a store with telecom company Cell C branding in Kwandengezi, South Africa March 28, 2017. REUTERS/Rogan Ward - RC15FD457D40
Black spots: Large parts of South Africa are not covered by the 4G network © Reuters

The tiny mountain kingdom of Lesotho would appear to be an unlikely pioneer of the latest wireless technologies. Yet, last August, the landlocked country became one of the first in the world to upgrade to a 5G network, beating its larger neighbour South Africa to the achievement.

Vodacom, the Vodafone-controlled network, chose to install the technology in Lesotho before its home market of South Africa where the telecoms regulator and the government clashed over how to structure the auction of spectrum — the frequencies used to carry wireless signals.

The sale of airwaves often creates tension for governments that want to balance the opportunity to cash in on a finite resource with the need to expand coverage quickly and keep the market competitive. For South Africa, the pressing need to boost coverage in rural and impoverished areas gives the new spectrum auction, set to take place by April, added relevance. 

The long-delayed auction will be critical in boosting 4G signal strength to the wider populace and laying the foundations for new 5G networks in the coming years: 5G is an overlay network that means providers can strengthen 4G services then easily upgrade to the new technology at a later date.

Yet delays to the spectrum sale have encouraged South Africans to turn to other types of technology to fill the void. These include mesh networks, which relay signals using WiFi and unlicensed spectrum bands to offer basic telecoms services in rural areas that are neglected by commercial networks.

White space technology, which relies on underutilised spectrum within television broadcast bands, is also seen as critical to closing the digital divide between rural and urban areas in countries such as South Africa, where millions of people live outside the planned coverage of companies such as MTN and Vodacom.

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White space technology has been trialled for more than a decade in markets such as rural Scotland. AfriCanopy, a South African start-up, obtained a licence in October to trial white space technology to provide low-cost broadband for rural communities.

The company aims to connect 85,000 people and 50 schools, and is in the process of raising funds from both public and private sources to test the technology commercially. The start-up is beginning the trial in Richards Bay in the province of KwaZulu Natal.

It has ambitions for a full rollout in the region and the trial will help answer the question of whether white space technology can be effective across the wider African continent. Microsoft has already tested the wireless system to connect schools in rural South Africa, conducting a small trial in Limpopo province in 2012, but the technology has yet to take off.

“We believe that broadband coverage should be available to everyone in South Africa, including previously excluded rural communities,” says Samora Xorile, AfriCanopy’s founder and majority shareholder.

Although the technology was found to be unsuitable for parts of Europe, John Delaney, an analyst at research company IDC, says the networking system is viable in South Africa because it combines “good availability of TV white space with a large addressable market of under-served people and households”.

White space networks are seen as complementary to full 5G services that should also significantly expand the reach of mobile networks.

The GSMA, the mobile phone industry trade body, says South Africa should be the first African country to register significant impact from 5G and millimetre wave coverage — a technology that boosts rural connectivity — which will provide significant benefits to manufacturing, financial services and security services in particular.

The GSMA estimates that a 5G network will boost the South African economy by $9.5bn by 2034, when the technology will account for 1.8 per cent of the country’s GDP and 7.3 per cent of total economic growth.

Yet the government’s plan to auction the spectrum — the first sale in 10 years — has been criticised by the heads of Vodacom and MTN as draconian due to of proposals to open up new networks at cost to rivals and potentially to introduce a new player to the market.

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That refrain is similar to other markets where established telecoms companies argue that imposing strict regulations on newly built networks reduces the incentive to invest.

Delta Partners, a telecoms consultancy, has argued that the government needs to strike a better balance, with plans to attract new mobile players unlikely to work.

The danger, according to Delta, is that the government ends up compromising on its ambition as it forces too much into the new telecoms policy. That could result in only urban areas benefiting from new networks.

“Given South Africa’s geography and wealth imbalances, awarding 4G spectrum alone will not reduce the digital divide. If anything, it may even increase it. Thus additional measures are needed,” says Sharoda Rapeti, a non-executive partner at Delta Partners based in Johannesburg.

White space technology’s potential

  • White space technology exploits unused spectrum reserved in the low band range between 470Mhz and 700Mhz that is used for broadcast television.
  • Traditional WiFi signals are limited in scope but white space technology can, in ideal conditions, deliver internet access over a 10km radius. The technology works within the data centre that searches for unused spectrum bands to make long-distance reliable WiFi-like connections.
  • UK telecoms group BT tested white space technology but decided other technology was more robust. Smaller providers have launched the service in the UK, offering speeds of 25-35 Mbps to rural communities, including Loch Ness in Scotland.
  • White space technology first moved to large-scale tests in 2011 when Cambridge in the UK was used as a test site by Microsoft, BT, Google, Nokia and regulator Ofcom, with tests also taking off across Africa and the US.
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