Does 5G offer Africa a critical opportunity to fast-track development – and if so, how viable is 5G deployment across the continent?
The response of Abdoulkarim Soumaila, Secretary General, Africa Telecommunications Union, in his keynote address was simply: why not? Nothing should be reserved for one section of society or one country, anyone can implement technology and enjoy its benefits – and development has no limits.
There are many differences in connectivity between and within African cultures, and there is a great fear that 5G will increase the gap between the more advanced and the less developed. But for Soumaila, the key is to make the industry take the time to provide what African end users want – and at affordable prices.
“The question is how to use these technologies in application for development. We have to show the end of the application, not the technology of whatever generation it may be,” he said. For governments and policy makers, the point of 5G networks is not so much the technology itself, but its application in terms of innovative concrete use cases – be this tackling malaria, reducing the cost of transport or increasing commercial opportunities for local fishermen.
The panel of experts from government, regulators and different industry sectors agreed that there was no reason 5G should not flourish in Africa, given the right applications and business models.
The consensus was clear: partnerships are essential to the success of 5G, and not just public private funding mechanisms. It’s also critical to look at intersectoral alliances, acknowledging the complimentary role of different technologies in different scenarios; and smart partnerships in local contexts, such as infrastructure sharing between operators or even different utilities, or tax incentives for private buildings to open up space for small cell stations.
What’s important, the panel stressed, is to move beyond current models. “If we continue to use policies created for original technologies on wireline,” said Donna Bethea Murpy, “if we use them in the future in all technologies, then it will be hard to reach 5G.” Collaboration between different technologies, looking at the actual needs of each individual country and a holistic approach are the critical to avoid deepening the digital divide, she continued.
For Ravi Suchak, VP; Public Affairs – EMEA, American Tower Corporation, 5G is more than just another generation of mobile technology. It will drive the fourth industrial revolution and have a profound, at times as yet unknown, impact on us all. The new capacities of 5G –including access to big data sets, capacity, reliability, latency and speed – “will fundamentally transform societies and industries.”
Countering the argument that 5G deployment is premature in Africa given the continent’s arguably more pressing needs for access to water, healthcare, electricity and education, amongst others, Suchak pointed out that such needs are the very reason why we need connectivity – and 5G in particular – in Africa “to provide a platform for basic human needs, uplifting economies and spurring innovation.” And across the African continent, “the lack of legacy infrastructure, large youth demographic and social and economic aspects create the environment for radical innovative solutions ripe for 5G.”
Suchak conceded that the change would not be easy, or overnight, calling for significant research and development, resources and investment. In Africa, where the paucity of core infrastructure shaves 2% off average capital growth rates, decades of minimal investment in networks make 5G deployment challenging in an environment where power outages can be regular. The key, according to Suchak, is to apply best practice to establish a good corporate environment in which to create ground fertile for innovation. This should involve, he said, measures such as “being open to smart partnerships and new investment in infrastructure in a collaborative approach”; implementing a flexible regulatory regime to encourage innovation and experimentation; demanding more as a government from infrastructure providers, looking for those willing to go beyond the easy pickings of the relatively wealthy urban areas; and leapfrogging policy decisions and tech to draw on pioneering innovations. After all, “the right enabling policy framework is critical for 5G as well as aligning cross sector on core aspects of standard tech.”
Marc Vancoppenolle, Global Head of Nokia Government Relations, Nokia Solutions and Networks, stressed the importance of defining the right use cases for 5G, given that the combination of increased bandwidth, reduced latency and speed will bring a multitude of new applications to market rather than just one killer app. He was positive on 5G in Africa, reminding the audience that “for emerging markets it is important to understand that with 5G, the total cost of ownership of the network is far lower than with previous technologies, so it makes sense for many operators to move there” – and then benefit from the new apps that will be available.
It is vital to make sure there is a “5G-ready policy framework” including areas such as spectrum, rules for faster networks, simplification of small cells and business models which allow monetization through the free flow of data or differentiation of traffic. The networks enabling smart agriculture, smart cities, smart education and health will be far cheaper in terms of cost per byte and efficiency.
Mr Peter Zimri, Councillor, Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) pointed out that it was important for governments, policy makers and regulatory, to take the lead and not leave it to industry, not to “sit back and wait for 5G to be on board, but use evidence-based policy making and regulatory frameworks” including harmonization of band plans, deployment of core networks and equipment, rights of way and land, type approvals and standards.
5G is for everyone, not just for developing countries – it is happening now, it promises huge benefits, and if you don’t take part, you will be left behind. After all, as session moderator Mario Maniewicz, Deputy Director, Radiocommunication Bureau, ITU, reminded the panel, “The real objective is bridging the digital divide.”
Ms. Donna Bethea Murphy, Senior Vice President of Global Regulatory Policy and Development, Inmarsat Plc.
Mr. Abdoulkarim Soumaila, Secretary-General, African Telecommunications Union
Mr. Ravi Suchak, VP, Public Affairs – EMEA, American Tower Corporation
Mr. Marc Vancoppenolle, Global Head of Nokia Government Relations, Nokia Solutions & Networks Belgium NV
Mr. Peter Zimri, Councillor, Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA)