Africa, like the rest of the world, must get ready for 5G

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
Johannesburg, 15 Nov 2019
The time is now for 5G planning in Africa.
The time is now for 5G planning in Africa.

Every country and carrier in the world should be thinking about 5G and considering the fifth-generation technology.

This is the sentiment expressed by Mohamed Madkour, VP of global wireless networks marketing and solutions at Huawei, speaking to journalists at a roundtable on the side-lines of AfricaCom 2019 in Cape Town.

This week, stakeholders from across the continent gathered for the annual telecoms and technology conference, where connectivity and topics like 5G, spectrum, digital inclusion and artificial intelligence were some of the focal points of discussion.

Madkour commented that he has a hard time accepting the rhetoric that it’s still “very early” for African nations to talk about 5G and that it’s just a “fancy” technology.

“There should not be any digital divide, no technology and no business divide. No digital divide means no one should be left behind from digital inclusion and there should not be a country that is left behind in the 5G race.”

The only difference will be how to deploy 5G, he added. “Africa has a lot of advanced markets…I am positive that when 5G is deployed, it will bring a lot of benefits, not only to the people but also to carriers and economies.

“Sub-Saharan Africa has to start with organising the assets and spectrum, work on the transport, ‘cloudify’ the core – these are all the things towards getting ready for 5G. We need to get ready for 5G – all the investments done in expanding 4G and organising site assets will reduce the amount of money needed to switch on 5G in the near future. Every rand/dollar spent on 4G is a rand/dollar invested in 5G.”

Leading the race

Despite the political and trade war between China and US, which Huawei has found itself in the middle of, the company has remained steadfast in its 5G agenda, shipping 400 000-plus base stations globally, to date.

This year has seen the US rally its allies to cut Huawei out of planned 5G networks, citing "national security threats" due to the company’s close ties to the Chinese government. Huawei has denied installing any backdoors in its networking equipment for alleged government spying.

Madkour reiterated the US allegations against Huawei technologies are baseless.

Huawei’s VP of global wireless networks marketing and solutions, Mohamed Madkour. (Source: ITU)
Huawei’s VP of global wireless networks marketing and solutions, Mohamed Madkour. (Source: ITU)

In light of the US sanctions, the last 40 000 units of the 5G base stations shipped by the Chinese telecoms equipment provider this year were without any American components, revealed the Huawei VP.

In China, he said, more than 150 000 of these types of base stations will be deployed in 50 cities by the end of this year. Next year, it will be up to 850 000 in about 300 cities.

“What we did, we tried to diversify our supply chain to minimise the impact on all of our products for our customers.

“We believe the world is so big and there are a lot of options for the supply chain, and we are taking that seriously. Some of them [base station components] we do in-house, like some chipsets. We do not see any significant effect on the business that we do with our customers.”

He highlighted that the current stand-off could influence the technology innovation pace and atmosphere in the future. “Technology should be inclusive, innovation should be inclusive – innovation doesn’t have a citizenship. Anyone can innovate and everyone should benefit from everybody else’s innovation.”

Responding to whether not using American components in its base stations is a long-term plan, he said: “We will be happy to use American components as far as they allow us to do that. We have really strong relationships with American vendors from different value chains – they love us and we love them. But if this status continues, then we will continue to support and strengthen our supply chain.”

Best practices

With the ongoing 5G debate, telecoms regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), earlier this month released the information memorandum on the licensing process for the assignment of high-demand spectrum (International Mobile Telecommunication spectrum).

ICASA’s document sets out the roadmap going forward for the auction of spectrum for 4G and includes some frequency ranges being eyed for 5G.

Speaking about best practices for spectrum licensing, Madkour said Huawei does not mandate certain methodologies or models but shares with governments and regulators globally the best way forward.

“In terms of the global good practice for spectrum, we always say spectrum has to be licensed as early as possible and as affordably as possible.

“It must be unfragmented spectrum; for example, each operator must at least get 50MHz or 60MHz when it comes to the C-band. It must be technology neutral, service neutral and government must incentivise usage of spectrum for high-efficient technologies,” he concluded.