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South Africa has made some big advances in 5G lately, with MTN launching its 5G services in the country at the end of June, following Vodacom’s 5G launch in May.

Both Vodacom and MTN—the largest mobile operators in South Africa—had wanted to launch 5G earlier but were unable to do so because they did not have access to suitable spectrum. That allowed a new player, Rain, which made its market debut as recently as 2018, to claim the title of South Africa’s first 5G service provider, with its launch of commercial 5G services in September 2019.

However, in April, South Africa’s telecoms regulator ICASA assigned additional spectrum to several operators on a temporary basis to help them to maintain communications services under the exceptional circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both MTN and Vodacom are using the spectrum assigned temporarily by ICASA for their 5G services, although Vodacom has also struck an agreement with Liquid Telecom that will allow Vodacom to use a wholesale 5G network that Liquid is deploying.

ICASA’s temporary allocation of spectrum will expire by the end of November, but the operators are hoping that there will be no turning back and that a spectrum auction slated for the end of 2020 will go ahead and allow them to gain permanent access to additional spectrum.

Additional permanent 4G and 5G spectrum is an essential tool for bridging South Africa’s digital divide, according to MTN. “The biggest telecommunication opportunities for the masses of South Africans, are for operators to deliver ultra-fast broadband to townships that continue to be significantly underserved by fixed-line fiber services,” said MTN SA’s CEO Godfrey Motsa in a statement about MTN’s 5G launch. “If the spectrum is made available, the coverage is a given and the affordability can be achieved.”

Vodacom said that the additional spectrum from ICASA had mitigated network congestion during the COVID-19 lockdown, while 5G, as a more efficient technology than its predecessors, will accommodate the further growth in data traffic that lies ahead.

But realizing the potential of 5G in South Africa will depend on a smooth transition to the long-term allocation of spectrum, as well as on factors such as the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the market.

Statistics South Africa, the country’s statistics authority, said at the end of June that the country’s economy contracted by 2% in 1Q20, the third consecutive quarter of economic decline.

Given that South Africa’s COVID-19 lockdown started towards the end of March and that restrictions continued through 2Q20, it seems inevitable that there is further bad news to come on the economy, which will probably temper demand for 5G devices and services, even if there is an underlying need for more advanced connectivity.

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