South Africa: the opportunity to expand fixed wireless broadband services using mmWave bands

22 July 2022

Ted de Boer, regional sales director, Siklu

Ted de Boer, regional sales director, Siklu

Fixed wireless access (FWA) for broadband service is growing rapidly in towns and the countryside in various countries and South Africa now has the proper conditions to enjoy the same expanded service options and benefits. FWA is growing because, in almost all situations, it is less expensive and time-consuming to deploy than fibre or co-ax based services. Recent research by the noted research firm GSMA Intelligence once again bears this out.

In a paper published in March, the analysts compared an FWA based on mixed 5G frequencies to fibre in Europe, the United States and Latin America with examinations of urban, suburban and rural deployment scenarios. Some of the principal findings include that 5G FWA costs 80% less than fibre, with the assumption of a lack of existing fibre available for leasing or sharing. In a suburban area, 5G FWA would cost 70% less, based on a fibre deployment requiring new poles or trenching and in urban areas with little existing fibre infrastructure, FWA would save up to 45% depending on the topography of the service area.

Furthermore, within the wireless realm there are ways to realise further savings – and faster speeds. For instance, in the U.S., many of the new FWA services are using the 5G “New Radio” frequencies such as 3.5 and 38 GHz and are marketed under monikers such as “5G Home.” These bands have been secured, primarily, by the major MNOs as part of the FCC-sponsored auction process. As a result, they are expensive and the priority for them remains mobile services. And that is no surprise as mobile ARPU is much higher than that for fixed services. Therefore, if the number of mobile 5G users in a certain area rises to a certain extent, then FWA services could be migrated off of the 5G new radio bands.

However, there is an attractive and much less-costly option to avoid this situation entirely – and provide much more bandwidth for end users. By accessing the mmWave bands of 60 GHz and higher, service providers and systems integrators can go beyond FWA and enable Gigabit-speed fixed wireless access, or “GWA.” And there are added benefits as well, for, in addition to very high-speed broadband for residential and enterprise customers, GWA services are ideal for smart-city projects requiring extra capacity such as video security, Wi-Fi backhaul, and municipal network connectivity all over one network. Another benefit lies in the capability of mmWave systems to fill in “fibre gaps” when it comes to “x-haul” services for 5G mobile.

With regards to residential broadband, mmWave can play a cost-effective role in augmenting the infrastructure required for the SA Connect program, which aims to provide 80% broadband connectivity in communities and government facilities with a minimum speed of 10Mbps, and 100 Mbps for high-demand facilities such as Home Affairs.

Further, the ongoing success of the Terragraph system is proving the viability of the 60 GHz band and the ability to offer fibre-like connectivity speeds at a fraction of the cost of laying fibre. Numerous trials are now underway in various countries in Africa and they are proving that the benefits are as envisioned a few years ago when Meta (then Facebook) started the Terragraph project.

Terragraph does not bridge the digital divide in rural areas, given that the propagation range is typically 300 meters or approximately 1000 feet, but as the vast majority of people in South Africa live in urban and sub-urban areas, it shows tremendous promise in providing a Gigabit-speed alternative to using only mobile phones for Internet connectivity – and there are several reasons for that.

Because of the very nature of the 60 GHz signals and the way they are used in Terragraph equipment, the band will never be saturated and there never will be any real interference. And with 14 GHz of available spectrum almost everywhere around the globe, a service provider will be able to use that frequency without interference in the future.

Further, the whole concept behind Terragraph is a mesh topology. And mesh topologies, almost by definition, use very short links, which are ideal for urban environments. For a mesh network in an urban digital divide environment, or anywhere in a city or even a suburb, 300 meters is plenty of range. For instance, in a suburban area, most typical single-family homes are well within 300 meters of each other. In the cities, most of this technology will be deployed on street furniture, with links that are well under 300 meters.

It is for that reason that, with regards to the formulation of the National Radio Frequency Plan of 2021, multiple responses for the release of 60GHz for outdoor PTMP use were submitted. The omission of these applications from the new regulations in the explicit sense has caused a delay in the roll-out of connectivity options that would help close the digital divide in South Africa. 

And lastly, a note about the growing use of another mmWave band in South Africa, the E band. The E band currently is used for fixed, point-to-point communication and has been largely underutilised in vast areas of South Africa. However, ICASA has taken actions in the NRFP that align with the industry’s long-standing advocacy of using mmWave to complement the fibre infrastructure. Specifically, the vast densification needed for high-band 5G mmWave networks requires reliable backhaul in addition to fibre, particularly when 5G small cells are mounted on street-level structures such as light poles.

To meet the needs of 5G backhaul, the 71-76 and 81-86 GHz bands offer 10GHz of bandwidth. And MNOs will need that capacity considering that a typical macro long-term evolution (LTE) base station serving 2,000 subscribers today requires 1Gbps or more of backhaul capacity. Further, 5G is a much more “edge intensive” technology with lower latency and increased bandwidth requirements. Therefore, 5G base stations will be built in a much denser topography, especially in urban and suburban areas, and increase bandwidth demands in the access network – and E-band mmWave links are a perfect way to fill any “fibre gaps” in the access portion of the network.

As the market’s insatiable demand for more bits in more places continues, the ability to deliver the necessary Gigabits means using best in breed technology regardless of whether it’s wireline or wireless. The V and E bands offer tremendous amounts of spectrum to deliver these gigabits, and governments around the world are waking up to the possibilities. Going forward, as 5G becomes more widespread and initiatives such as SA Connect continue apace in South Africa, these fixed 5G mmWave systems will address both residential broadband requirements and they can also play a role in ensuring a cohesive mobile broadband experience.