Liquid Telecom is giving serious thought to leveraging its spectrum asset in the 3.5GHz band, which happens to be ideally suited to the roll-out of next-generation 5G mobile broadband technology.
Given that communications regulator Icasa isn’t likely to assign spectrum to operators to build 5G networks until the second half of 2020 — at the earliest — the move could allow it to grab a chunk of the wholesale 5G market early on if it were to build a network.
The country’s biggest operators, MTN and Vodacom, do not have spectrum available to roll out
Both Vodacom and MTN are champing at the bit to launch 5G in South Africa, with both having run pilots of the technology already using test spectrum from Icasa that they are not permitted to commercialise.
Liquid has 56MHz of spectrum in the 3.5GHz band — at 3 456MHz to 3 484MHz and 3 556MHz to 3 584MHz. The only other operators with access to this band are Telkom and Rain.
Already, it was announced this week that MTN will roam on a new 4G/LTE network being built by Liquid in the 1.8GHz band.
Sha said in an interview with TechCentral on Friday that the company will “follow a very similar process” to the 1.8GHz band in monetising its 3.5GHz asset.
“We will explore multiple methods to monetise it,” he said. “We are considering it on a wholesale basis, as opposed to a retail service.”
Exiting consumer retail
Liquid Telecom is in the process of shutting down the legacy retail services it offered, including fixed-LTE services at 1.8GHz and its old CDMA network at 800MHz, which Sha said has become expensive and difficult to maintain.
“Our strategy is to remain an enterprise-focused provider, and wholesale, of course. We will provide as many services as possible to the enterprise market, but in the small and medium enterprise space we will leverage our channel partner network much more (than we have previously).”
He said the company’s 3.5GHz spectrum allocation is ideally suited to building a 5G network.
Liquid Telecom is also considering its options for its 800MHz allocation. “Once we have vacated it fully and cleaned it up, that’s when we can initiate the process of the looking at the possible scenarios to determine how we take it forward. There are multiple scenarios there and we want to fully explore all those scenarios before we make a decision.”
On the 4G roaming agreement with MTN, Sha declined to disclose the investment Liquid Telecom is making in the network, which will be of national scope, and when MTN clients will be able to take advantage of it.
“Needless to say, the process has already started. We need to make sure our customer (MTN) is satisfied with the service we will build out for them. We can’t share the timelines on our own because there are customer-confidential timelines.”
He said Liquid Telecom will make extensive use of MTN high sites to deploy the network, but added that the company already has “some existing agreements” in place with companies that operate towers.
“This is about monetising an asset that hasn’t been monetised for a long, long time in a market that has been starved of high-demand spectrum.”