5G has become the new buzzword that we are hearing everywhere. 5G is said to be the era of intelligent connectivity, but what exactly is 5G? In short, 5G or fifth generation is cellular network technology that provides broadband access. It offers connections much faster than our current connection, but this technology is so much more than just faster internet. One of its salient features is that it has a lower latency therefore allowing data to be transferred in real time. Testing and rollout have begun in certain parts of the world like South Korea and Spain. This new technology is set to change the way we do everything! From automated vehicles being tested in Barcelona to robots performing medical operations, 5G technology is at the forefront of all these changes. Even the way we do banking will change where almost everything we require will become automated.  Our current technology, i.e. 3G and 4G does not have the capability to enable this kind of technology.  But before we get caught up in all the possibilities that exist, is South Africa ready for this technology?

Before any technology  can be implemented in South Africa, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (“ICASA”) will need to issue the license for the required spectrum.

Section 31 of the ECA[1] states:

(3) The Authority may, taking into account the objects of the Act, prescribe procedures and criteria for-

(a) radio frequency spectrum licences in instances where there is insufficient spectrum available to accommodate demand;

(b) the amendment, transfer, transfer of control, renewal, suspension, cancellation and withdrawal of radio frequency spectrum licences; and

(c) permission to assign, cede, share or in any way transfer a radio frequency spectrum licence, or assign, cede or transfer control of a radio frequency spectrum licence as contemplated in subsection (2A).

The current situation in South Africa is that we are waiting upon ICASA to auction more spectrum for the 4G network. According to government this spectrum has not been used to its full capacity and therefore before we can even consider moving ahead with 5G we need to resolve the spectrum issue.

In the event that ICASA is ready to issue spectrum licenses for 5G, cybersecurity must be tightened. According to the EU report on 5G technology[2], 5G  technology will transform the economy and society and open more opportunities for people and businesses. With this transformation comes to the need to ensure that the 5G network is cybersecure.

We currently have piecemeal  legislation dealing  with different aspects of cybercrimes. Some of the legislation includes the ECTA[3], RICA Act[4] and POPIA[5] but none of these Acts deal specifically with cybercrimes. The Cybercrimes Bill has been tabled before Parliament and we are awaiting its finalisation. This piece is of legislation criminalises certain types of cybercrime which is quite a shift in comparison to our current pieces of legislation and it allows the Regulator to take decisions on  cybercrimes such as phishing, spam, computer- related fraud and other similar offences.

A report was recently published by ICASA on its role in terms of cybersecurity. The hearing was held and the major mobile network operators, amongst others, made representations. It was found that according to S2 of the ECA, an obligation was imposed on it to ensure information security and network reliability. As cyber threats grow, security policies and technology and procedures need to evolve even faster and stay ahead of the threats. ICASA took the view that South Africans need to be educated on how to behave in cyberspace. Once the Cybercrimes Bill becomes law, it is yet to be seen what ICASA’s role will be in enforcing cybersecurity for networks.

So how does this relate to 5G?

Before the rollout of 5G technology a proper risk assessment will need to be done. The use of 5G technology will mean that the collection of data and use thereof will be more than ever before and so the need to protect our data will be increased. Perhaps once we have stringent laws and standards regulating cybercrimes in place, we will be one step closer to implementation.

Another step that would need to be taken would be developing and building the right infrastructure. This will become a costly exercise for the country. Mobile operators will need to develop strategies for 5G to cope with this expected growth in network cost. Standard measures will involve cost-saving efforts, but they will also need to explore more alternative approaches, such as network sharing (the joint building of new 5G networks) and new revenue models.[6] Telkom’s property division called Gyro has already started to plan for these changes. They are currently seeking equity partners to build around 2000 towers over the next 3 years.

In light of the above, it would seem that whilst 5G technology is going to be a game changer, South Africa may only be ready for it in the next few years. We would need to first ensure that we have the required laws, polices and infrastructure in place before we will ever see its implementation.

[1] Electronic Communications Act 37 of 2007

[2] https://ec.europa.eu/commission/news/common-eu-approach-security-5g-networks-2019-mar-26_en

[3] Electronic Communications and Transactions Act 25 of 2002

[4] The Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act 70 of 2002

[5] The Protection of Personal Information Act 4 of 2013

[6] The road to 5G: The inevitable growth of infrastructure cost by Ferry Grijpink