As South Africa’s sole data-only network operator, rain, continues its rapid fourth-generation (4G) network deployment, fifth-generation (5G) technology is currently being tested for the roll-out of Africa’s first 5G network.
Earlier this year, rain announced it was making progress in finalising its planned 5G commercial network, in partnership with information and communication technology (ICT) group Nokia and ICT solutions provider Huawei, which it began building in October 2018.
By September, rain had fully activated the network, with the first-phase roll-out of a number of 5G sites in key areas in Johannesburg and Tshwane and opening it up as a soft launch to selected existing customers, says rain CEO Willem Roos.
By the end of 2019, the network is expected to be opened to the public.
“We are the first 5G network in Africa and, I believe, sixth in the world,” Roos says.
Starting off with the development of a 4G data network over two years ago, the group has had some success as a niche provider, with data as its primary offering.
The 4G network was built as part of a services infrastructure agreement with Vodacom, with construction outsourced to Vodacom, as well as the day-to-day managing of a large portion of the 4G sites.
As at October, the company boasted 3 200 sites – 2 200 frequency division duplexing (FDD) and 1 000 combined FDD and time division duplexing sites.
This is expected to expand to 5 000 4G sites by the end of next year.
“The scale of the network is significant,” Roos says, pointing out that its network is approaching the scale of mobile operator Telkom’s network and is already competing with Cell C.
The rain network is based on three frequency bands, he explains, noting that rain currently holds an allocation in the 1 800 MHz band, as well as in the sought-after 2.6 GHz band, where it holds the only licence, and the 3.6 GHz band, on which the 5G network will be built.
Leveraging this network are rain’s two business units, namely wholesale and roaming services and a niche direct-to- consumer unit.
“The biggest portion of our business currently is the roaming service, with a good percentage of Vodacom’s 4G traffic flowing over the rain network.
“We are a performance layer for Vodacom,” he adds, pointing to a contract that has been running over the past two years, in terms of which Vodacom makes use of rain’s network when its own is busy.
Roaming agreements are the source of the bulk of the group’s revenue; however, rain intends growing its currently small niche consumer base to ensure a larger portion of the revenue contribution in the future.
“We have our own direct-to-consumer business where we offer a very niche 4G mobile offering and an upcoming 5G fixed-wireless access offering,” Roos notes.
“With 4G customers, the targeted market share is in the low single digits; however, we would like to make a bigger impact in the broadband-to-the-home [market],” he adds.
The offering is simple – consumers pay R250 a month for unlimited data for 19 hours of the day on the 4G network, with peak time use, between 18:00 and 23:00, charged at R50/Gb.
There are no bundles, data expiry or contracts, and there is no voice product.
While Roos concedes it is not an offering that is conducive to live streaming in peak hours and consumers would have to adjust their use and downloads to exploit the off-peak unlimited data timeline, it is an ideal offering for small businesses.
Further, the network, which has close to 100 000 consumer subscribers, currently only offers metropolitan coverage.
The company also keeps its distribution costs low, offering online-only purchases, with the sim card delivered and the Regulation of Interception of Communication Act (Rica) process completed on delivery, as traditional retail outlets are costly to establish and maintain.
Plans are in place to enhance its purchasing platform.
The group is exploring options of a Rica online Web or application service, where an identity document and proof of address can be uploaded, and access to a platform is interlinked to the Department of Home Affairs, in addition to facial recognition and proof-of-life test options.
Further, rain is working on expanding its product range to include esims.
The same offerings will be provided for the imminent 5G network, the tower management of which will be undertaken internally.
“rain has established close partnerships with international technology leaders, such as Huawei Technologies, ensuring that we build the network in line with best international practice. rain is leveraging its 4G network infrastructure to build a cost-effective 5G network with wide coverage,” the company outlines in its fact sheet.
“We have very weird and wonderful plans in the longer term,” Roos comments, noting the company remains “very focused” on its short-term objective: to get its customers connected to the 5G network.
The company’s initial 5G offering is to provide fast, affordable and easy-to-install wireless connectivity to homes and businesses as an alternative to asymmetric digital subscriber line, fibre and fixed long-term evolution.
Partner Huawei offers a full range of 5G end-to-end product solutions, including core network, the bearer network and base-station-to-terminal connections, while Nokia provides end-to-end 5G solutions comprising optical fronthaul transport products and its fixed-wireless access FastMile 5G Gateway.
The company will use current allocated spectrum and leverage its existing long-term evolution network to build the 5G network using 3.6 GHz spectrum.
“This frequency band, together with the nonstandalone, or NSA, architecture, allows rain to construct only a relatively limited number of new sites, and . . . still provide significant coverage. This architecture has been adopted and implemented at scale in countries like South Korea, Japan and China.”
“We are building the first block of a proper 5G network foundation. The stuff you can do on top of that can be pretty amazing,” Roos comments.
The group currently boasts 250 5G sites, with planned ambitions to grow this to 700 by the end of 2020 and, eventually, up to 2 000 5G sites live in future.
Over the next few weeks, rain will open up the 5G network to all homes and small businesses within the coverage area of Johannesburg and Tshwane.
During the course of 2020, the coverage area will be extended to other major metros in South Africa, including Cape Town and Durban.
“Selected customers in rain’s 5G coverage area have been invited to be the first to buy ultrafast 5G, unlimited Internet for only R1 000 a month,” the company said in September, when it launched its testing phase.
Similar to its structure with its 4G network, rain will deliver a 5G sim and 5G plug-and-play home router to a customer’s home, using Huawei pro 5G customer-premises equipment (CPE) with WiFi 6 and mesh units.
The company aims to include additional CPEs from Nokia and outdoor units from Huawei.
As the 5G ecosystem matures, many more 5G devices, such as dual-sim mobile phones, tablets and 5G-connected laptops, are expected to become available at an affordable cost.
“The 5G network opens the door for new applications and services that rely on ultrahigh speeds and ultralow latency, such as virtual reality, augmented reality and artificial intelligence for improved education, healthcare and entertainment, besides others,” Roos says.
In time, the network will also support a variety of 5G use cases, including the Internet of Things (IoT), smart cities and self-driving vehicles, when commercial 5G end-user devices become available.
The first application of rain’s 5G network will be to provide ultrabroadband services for homes and small businesses, paving the way for the introduction of 5G services in across the country.
Further, the current 5G network can offer Internet at speeds of up to 700 Mb/s, with a current 200 Mb/s average, and has the capacity to properly compete with fibre, which is not yet universal in the country.
Fibre only connects 30% of the homes it passes, owing to installation complexity, which 5G does not have.
The group’s initial 250 5G sites already pass 500 000 homes.
The network will provide fibrelike speeds without the installation complexities, time delays and the cost of laying fibre in underserviced areas to a market of four-million homes and small businesses in metropolitan areas with a high average revenue per user.
He noted that competition in the uncapped fibre space is strong, with packages ranging from entry-level 10 MB/s services at R500 to ultrafast 200 Mb/s for R1 500, excluding installation costs.
While remaining heavily dependent on fast fibre connections to its towers, 5G provides a good alternative to last-mile connectivity, as it is costly to dig trenches to link fibre to every home and business, while one 5G tower can cover a range of between 2 km and 7 km.
Fibre to a single 5G site is cheaper and easier than the deployment of fibre to hundreds of homes.
Further into the future, however, South Africa can look forward to the 5G smartphone, massive IoT, such as smart cities and connected homes, and critical machine-to-machine communication, such as self-driving cars, emergency services and remote augmented reality, besides others.