As 5G promises to bring unprecedented speed and coverage to South Africa, those at the forefront of rolling out the necessary infrastructure are being delayed by years due to regulators and slow processes at town planning departments.

With wireless traffic volumes expected to increase 1 000-fold over the next decade, 5G will play a key role in delivering universal access and driving the fourth industrial revolution in South Africa. ICASA expects 5G to significantly improve the quality of internet coverage and drastically reduce broadband costs. For smaller towns, 5G coverage can boost job prospects and economic growth. 

Hampering 5G optimisation

However, there are hurdles to overcome. One of these are the misconceptions around 5G radiation, and even a belief in some areas that 5G was somehow responsible for COVID-19.

One of the biggest challenges, however, relates to regulations, town planning and land use rights.

For optimal 5G coverage, we will require tower densification, 10 times the number of outdoor infrastructure to accommodate 5G expansion. Instead of 25m – 35m tall mobile towers positioned 500 metres apart as we see in current town schemes, a 5G densification project will use small cell infrastructure in which masts up to 15 metres tall are positioned only 100 metres apart.

With careful design and planning, small cell infrastructure can be concealed on walls, buildings and alongside roads on pillars or poles that also support street lights with cameras for community safety. In this way, the infrastructure could address the problems of densification, safety and security and human rights.

Making a success of the 5G opportunity

The challenge South Africa now faces is to streamline regulatory and local authority processes to make 5G a success.

We are now seeing approvals stuck at local councils for months – potentially years. Projects are not moving ahead because of delayed approvals, and councils do not realise their town planning schemes are an impediment to wireless roll-out.

In many areas, roads and other civil infrastructure are prioritised, with authorities lacking an understanding of the importance of wireless infrastructure. Given the national government’s 4IR and e-government ambitions, speeding up service delivery is no longer just about brick and mortar infrastructure, but also wireless infrastructure. The national government’s strategies have to be translated into action at the coalface – at local government level.

Cities that are proactive in addressing small cell infrastructure roll-outs will lead future growth – particularly at a time that hybrid work is potentially driving new investment into smaller towns. However, even those town planning departments that understand the importance of communications infrastructure are not always manned to manage 5G roll-outs with the level of urgency that is required.

Now is the time for town planning departments to embrace technology and come to the realisation that they play a major role in the whole 4IR value chain. They need to become more adaptable and move faster to tap into the acre of diamonds they could be sitting on.