March 30, 2021

Why we need fibre and 5G to drive connectivity

By Steve Briggs, Chief Commercial Officer at SEACOM

5G is the fifth and latest generation of wireless connectivity. It is being rolled out across the globe and is changing the face of wireless and digital technologies. It offers a whole lot more than unprecedented connection speeds; 5G can handle many more connected devices, has 10 times fewer delays than 4G and enables network slicing to prioritise specific users during peak times.

With so many great benefits, it’s no wonder that many people believe that 5G will soon replace fibre. In fact, 5G could not exist without fibre. The two technologies work hand-in-hand to improve connectivity and access to online resources.

The 5G mobile network is currently being set up in South Africa and it will still take a few years for it to become widely available. When it does, it will still not replace fibre optic networks but rather work in tandem with them, to offer more comprehensive internet capabilities. Wireless networks rely on fibre to function fully.

The speed and reliability of 5G will be directly influenced by the strength of the fibre network to carry traffic to and from the 5G ‘small cells’, which are the low-power cellular nodes that are being installed across the country. These small cells are far cheaper and less intrusive than 4G cell towers. Without the lightning-fast fibre network as a backbone to connect the 5G small cells, the entire system would be useless.

Benefits and drawbacks of 5G

5G uses high-frequency waves that deliver speeds of up to 20 Gbps under ideal conditions. Due to the much shorter wavelength than 4G, it can carry 1000 times more data. However, this comes at a cost; 5G has a much shorter range. While 4G signals can travel up to 16 kilometres, 5G can only travel around 500m.

We can probably expect 5G’s range to improve over time, but for now, they may be less effective at penetrating buildings, which could further limit its range. This is why far more 5G small cells are required for the network to function effectively. The signal is likely to drop as people on the move pass by large buildings or even dense trees.

These limitations mean that a more flexible network architecture is needed. In order to create the breakneck speeds of 5G, we need the reliability and reach of fibre. This is especially important for businesses that require high bandwidths for transferring large amounts of data. Fibre will still underpin the entire 5G network in the future.

5G rollout in South Africa

The rollout of 5G in South Africa is slow and steady. It is already available in certain parts of the country through specific network providers, so coverage is still limited. The cost and availability of 5G-ready smartphones is another challenge currently faced by South Africans. These are often priced at over R10 000 per device.

Making this incredible technology more affordable and available to people is a difficult task, but businesses and policymakers need to invest in the fibre infrastructure to lay the foundations of a successful 5G network.

Deloitte estimates that wireless networks in South Africa only carry about 11% of internet traffic; the rest is supported by cabled networks such as fibre and ADSL. For this reason, billions of rands will be needed to invest in widespread fibre infrastructure that can turn the 5G dream into reality.

The future of connectivity

The digital world is evolving and so are the ways in which we connect to it. Internet traffic has grown by around 30% every year between 2016 and 2020. The number of connected devices is also growing faster than the number of internet users, unsurprisingly. It is estimated that more than 70% of the global population will have mobile connectivity by 2023.

Our data consumption will continue to grow in the future, as businesses require more data-driven processes, people stream more music and movies, and smart cities are developed and built. Only through investment in connectivity and the integration of fibre and 5G infrastructure will we be able to meet the demands of the digital future. For more information or to get a quote for our various connectivity and fibre solutions, email us at marketing@seacom.com or leave us a message.


SEACOM owns Africa’s most extensive network of information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure, including subsea cables and secure internet connections. We offer a diverse range of flexible, scalable and high-quality solutions for businesses that meet world-class standards for connectivity.

SEACOM is privately owned and operated, making it agile and adaptable to the needs of the customer. This makes us the preferred ICT and internet connectivity partner for African businesses and peripheral service providers. We can guarantee high-speed, low-latency and secure internet connections to corporates and small enterprises.

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