Vodacom and Liquid Telecom have signed an agreement which will, in effect, give the country’s biggest mobile operator access to a key spectrum band, allowing it to offer 5G services nationally, potentially pipping its nearest rivals to the post in deploying the super-fast next-generation technology.
Though Vodacom has declined to comment, and Liquid said it will be in a position to comment only after the end-of-year holiday period, TechCentral has learnt reliably that the two companies have signed the deal to exploit Liquid’s legacy spectrum assignment in the 3.5GHz band.
Communications regulator Icasa is set to license some 5G spectrum next year, including in the 3.5GHz band, but that process could still be derailed given that communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams has said previously she prefers a separate process for licensing 5G-suitable spectrum.
Though neither Vodacom nor Liquid Telecom are commenting yet, TechCentral understands that the deal is national in scope, that the network can be built on any tower infrastructure — including Vodacom’s — and that the agreement is non-exclusive. It’s likely to be some sort of roaming deal, not dissimilar to the arrangement Vodacom has with Rain (for expanded 4G coverage) and MTN South Africa has with Liquid (using the latter’s assignment at 1.8GHz, also for additional 4G coverage).
Timing isn’t clear yet, but presumably the first Liquid Telecom 5G high sites could go live within months. TechCentral understands that the timing is dependent on how quickly Liquid can deploy the radio frequency equipment. With Vodacom’s backing, it should, however, happen fairly quickly.
Both Vodacom and MTN are champing at the bit to launch 5G in South Africa, with both having run pilots of the technology already using test spectrum from Icasa that they are not permitted to commercialise.
Liquid has a big chunk of 56MHz of spectrum in the 3.5GHz band — at 3 456MHz to 3 484MHz and 3 556MHz to 3 584MHz. The only other operators with access to this band are Telkom and Rain. Rain has launched a commercial fixed-wireless (as opposed to mobile) 5G network, while Telkom hasn’t communicated its plans yet for the technology.
Liquid Telecom CEO Reshaad Sha said in an interview with TechCentral in March that the company intended to “follow a very similar process” to the 1.8GHz band in monetising its 3.5GHz asset.
The timing for Vodacom is important as a range of 5G-ready handsets are set to begin hitting the South African market next year, including the next Apple iPhone, which will be unveiled in September. The next flagship devices from Samsung and Huawei, coming early in the new year, are also likely to contain 5G chipsets. Operators that can provide 5G services to customers buying these handsets will get a head-start in the lucrative high end of the market.
In his earlier interview with TechCentral, Sha said the company’s 3.5GHz allocation is ideally suited to building a 5G network. – © 2019 NewsCentral Media