In a historic move, data-only network operator rain gained a head start over its hamstrung competitors yesterday by launching Africa's first 5G network. Photo: Reuters
JOHANNESBURG – In a historic move, data-only network operator rain gained a head start over its hamstrung competitors yesterday by launching Africa's first 5G network.

Khaya Dlanga, rain’s chief marketing officer, said: “Selected customers in rain’s 5G coverage area have been invited to be the first to purchase ultra-fast 5G, unlimited internet for only R1000 a month.

"No installation is required, the router is simply plug-and-play and it will be connected immediately."

The offering is limited so far, but will expand next year. In a statement yesterday, rain said over the next couple of weeks it would go live in Tshwane and Johannesburg at launch and extend the coverage area to the major metros in South Africa next year.

rain said it was leveraging its 4G data networking infrastructure in building the 5G network in its regulated 3600 MHz spectrum band.

South Africa’s dominant mobile operators, including Vodacom and MTN, are unable to launch 5G services until more spectrum is licensed to them by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa.

Minister of Communications, Telecommunications and Postal Services Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams in July issued the government's long-awaited policy around spectrum allocation.

World Wide Worx managing director Arthur Goldstuck said: “It is a significant moment in the history of broadband evolution in South Africa. Competitors will dismiss it as a gimmick and limited to only a few narrowly-defined areas of coverage, but it has to start somewhere. It can't wait for the government to get over its regulatory sloth and actually do something about freeing up spectrum needed for high-speed broadband."

He said rain would have a tremendous head-start in learning to optimise a 5G network, build out use cases and refine its offering.

“This may well be a factor in Vodacom agreeing to rain roaming on its network: the advantage will work both ways,” Goldstuck said.

He said the launch would probably lead increased pressure on the government and the regulator to get its act together with regard to issuing spectrum and increased efforts at innovation in re-purposing existing spectrum to replicate the 5G experience.

“The reality, however, is that the rain network does not yet represent a competitive challenge to MTN and Vodacom. Both have near-blanket coverage of the country with 4G and we still have not seen saturation of the 3G and 4G market, let alone demand for 5G.”

He said MTN had just rolled out a fixed-LTE service which, although not uncapped, offered highly competitive pricing.

“For now, many consumers would prefer to pay less than half the price of the rain offering for a capped service that still provides high usage and reasonable speeds. The rain offering is in effect a fixed mobile offering and will compete more directly with fibre-to-the-home, where similar pricing is available for uncapped offerings, although at slower speeds. The question consumers will ask is, what can I do at 200Mbps, or 500Mbps, that I can't already do at 100Mbps or 50Mbps? Once rain can answer that question, it will have a far more compelling offering.”

Andile Masuku, the executive producer of African Tech Roundup, said: “While I am a fan of any mobile data development that challenges the actual dominance of legacy mobile telcos, rain’s 5G deployment appears to be a limited pilot rollout. Frankly, the benefits of their offering in strict pragmatic terms (network coverage and reliability and pricing competitiveness) remains to be seen.”