South Africa's mobile data-only network operator, Rain, has announced that it has launched the first 5G commercial network in South Africa in partnership with Huawei. Rain and Huawei made the announcement at Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2019 in Barcelona, Spain making it the first network to launch 5G on the African continent, and one of the first in the world.
In November 2018 Rain demonstrated its 5G capabilities in Cape Town and told ITWeb that it had plans for a commercial 5G service to be live in early 2019.
Rain now says that full commercial rollout is only planned for mid-2019 but that its 5G network is actually already live in Johannesburg at the moment
"We have been live since November in a very small pocket but we now have commercial network availability in Johannesburg. But the device ecosystem hasn't caught up to the pace of our rollout yet. Obviously you need to rollout the network before the devices, but if you had a handset or 5G device of some sort it would be working in Johannesburg right now," Rain chief strategy officer, Brandon Leigh, explained at the announcement in Barcelona.
Using Huawei's end-to-end 5G solutions, Rain has built the 5G network using its 3.6GHz spectrum.
"The network will provide fibre-like speeds without the installation complexities, time delays and cost of laying fibre in under-serviced areas", said Rain group CEO Willem Roos.
Roos said that Rain's vision is to democratise data in South Africa.
"It is well known that if broadband penetration increases in a country then you get better economic growth and then you see improvement in employment and Rain can play a small part to help bridge the digital divide in our country.
"We are big supporters of our president [Cyril Ramaphosa's] recent initiatives to re-energise investment in our country. We made a promise to invest a significant amount of money in the 5G network, which of course we are building with Huawei. I think we are in quite a unique position that we can leverage our existing infrastructure and our existing 4G network to rapidly roll out the 5G network," Roos added.
"So hopefully by mid-year we will have coverage in the two major metropolitan areas, [Johannesburg and Cape Town], and to have a commercial launch to clients. Then following that quite rapidly rollout a 1000-site network which should cover initially the major metros in the country and later even more," Roos explained.
Rain's plan is to provide ultra-broadband services to homes and enterprises.
"Our focus in the beginning, and the first use case which I think makes by far the most economic sense, is very fast wireless broadband, or fibre in the sky as we like to call it, to people's homes and businesses. But in the future you are going to get a whole range of other devices from handsets to IOT devices etc." Roos said.
In September, Rain will also release 5G mobile products and plans to further promote 5G-enabled applications in terms of industry video, remote driving and smart manufacturing.
"As Rain we are looking forward to bringing fast wireless access to many more South Africans. We think we can contribute to the country's GDP and be a good corporate citizen, bridge the digital divide and make our country a better place for everybody to live in," Roos said.
In terms of pricing of fixed wireless services Roos could not give specifics but said: "the cost of delivery we think is going to be quite low, just given the fact that we are utilising existing infrastructure and our existing 4G networks for uplinks and the like, so when compared to similar fibre offerings we certainly think we can be very competitive."
5G is here
"[At MWC Barcelona] you can see that 5G is here, if there was any doubt about 5G you only have to walk around for a while here," said Rain chairman Paul Harris.
"The big tsunami that is going to hit us is when the ecosystem starts developing and when devices start becoming available at the end of this year. We really think this is a huge opportunity to create an ecosystem that is going to promote economic growth, promote it in our country and in the world. It gives places like Africa the opportunity to leapfrog in technology. At Rain we have the advantage that we don't have the legacy of 2G and 3G networks that we have to maintain, we are in the new age with our 5G opportunity," Harris added.
At MWC this year Huawei showcased its 5G foldable smartphone, the Huawei Mate X; and its 5G CPE (Customer Premise Equipment) Pro, the first commercial products housing the Balong 5000 5G chipset.
"It is an important step working with Rain to build the first 5G network in South Africa. With our solutions, we are committed to working with operators to build future-oriented networks that will give them the maximum value from their investment and give their customers the best user's experience," said Shi Jilin, president of the Huawei cloud core network product line.
When asked about expanding its 5G network to neighbouring African countries Roos said that there were no set plans at the moment.
"There is obviously complexity due to spectrum licencing and those types of issues, so Rain has no plans at this point in time to look at other countries in Africa, but certainly South Africa can play a much more crucial role to be the gateway to Africa. We will see if commercial opportunities that make sense arise and then one may able to take the same business model into other countries, but for now we are focused on rolling out in South Africa," he said.
"We are a proudly South African and African company so we don't have competitive pressures about working in the rest of Africa so if there is anything that we, together with our partners Huawei, can do to assist we certainly would. We want Africa to succeed, but our turf is South Africa so we will start there," added Harris.
"5G is a key component of the fourth industrial revolution and the team at Rain really wants to play our part to make sure that South Africa participates in the fourth industrial revolution and benefits from it and can also play a leading role particularly on the continent to enable the wonderful technologies that the fourth industrial revolution and 5G can bring to the continent," Roos concluded.