Building the networks of the future

As consumer needs and requirements evolve and as interest in emerging technologies grows, what are telcos doing to provide the backbone
Joanne Carew
By Joanne Carew, ITWeb Cape-based contributor.
Johannesburg, 26 Apr 2023
Schalk Visser, Cell C.
Schalk Visser, Cell C.

South Africans are spending more time online than every before. In fact, over the last decade, internet traffic in South Africa has grown by around 500 000%. This leap can largely be attributed to changes in the type content users consume, such as a big increase in high definition video streaming. And with the rise in future technologies promising to transform everything from entertainment and training to workplaces and healthcare by making it possible for people to connect in new and different ways, the amount of capacity that network operators need to provide is only set to climb.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean that local telcos need to rush out and build super-fast, advanced networks right away, says Spiwe Chireka, a telecoms industry expert. “We must remember that relevant supply drives demand,” she says. According to Chireka, the market in Africa is always driven by the three A’s; availability, accessibility and affordability. All three must co-exist in order for anything to really take off and, at present, when it comes to many of the sexy emerging technologies that are making news headlines, they don’t.

Mark Walker, associate VP for sub-Saharan Africa at the IDC, shares this sentiment. Using the metaverse as an example of the future of the internet, he says that this immersive world and its related technologies are still very incipient. He cites the gaming segment as one area where we can already see real use cases for highly immersive, virtual environments. “Business will only invest in something if it is going to help them make money. So, at the end of the day, gaming may be showcasing what can be done in the metaverse but currently the use cases are still far too specific.”

As telcos start investigating what they need to do to move from being a traditional communication provider and become a communication technology provider, they are longer just be providing the plumbing, they will also be adding value to that plumbing and, thus, expanding the use of this plumbing.

But this doesn’t mean that local telcos aren’t making moves to ensure that their networks are ready for the technologies of the future. Schalk Visser, CTO at Cell C, says its focusing on partnerships, both with enablers and content. Modern telcos are working to better understand their customers’ core requirements so that they can tailor their offerings to address these needs. “By adding to the ecosystem and providing the services that our customers want and need, we can open up a lifetime of value for our existing, as well as our prospective customers,” he says. In this way, new and emerging technologies provide an incredible opportunity for telcos to tap into new markets and play further up the digital value chain, he says.

“As telcos start investigating what they need to do to move away from being a traditional communication provider and toward becoming a communication technology provider, they are no longer just offering the plumbing, they are also adding value to that plumbing and, thus, expanding the use of their plumbing,” says Walker. “In this way, they are moving from being a communication or connectivity provider to becoming a full digital services provider.”

The role of 5G in our digital future

While current 5G networks serve as a solid foundation for the innovations of the future, the high-performance networks needed to enable this will be powered by 5G Advanced – which is expected to strengthen 5G by improving speed coverage, mobility and power efficiency – and 6G. Offering significantly higher bandwidth, super-fast data speeds and extremely low latencies, the emergence of 5G Advanced and 6G will enhance use cases for more advanced connectivity.

Africa is driven by the three A’s – availability, accessibility and affordability.

“Current 5G implementations do not give consumers any revolutionary experiences other than perhaps a slight improvement. This is because the applications used by consumers today don’t really demand too much from 5G networks,” says Octavio Garcia, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. Garcia’s colleagues agree. “By the time we have any type of critical mass of untethered VR headsets or the metaverse, 5G will likely be considered to be a slow network,” says Forrester Research’s Julie Ask, a VP and principal analyst.

When discussing infrastructure development, Walker says that as we move to higher frequencies, physical constraints emerge. The higher the frequency (from 5G to 6G), the shorter the wavelength, which equates to less transmission power and means that we are going to need a lot more base stations to cover the same area. And it’s not just about communication infrastructure, he adds, it’s also about all the associated infrastructure needed to move huge amounts of data from one point to another very quickly.

Different flavours of RAN

RAN technologies provide an essential foundation for the provision of mobile telecom services. As the industry has evolved, several new approaches to RAN have emerging that make it possible to reduce physical-asset requirements, capital expenditure and operational expenditure; while also enhancing vendor diversification and promoting greater competition.

Below, we unpack three different RAN approaches – centralised RAN (CRAN), open RAN (ORAN) and virtual RAN (VRAN):

  • CRAN is about centralisation. This approach sees network operators pooling resources; meaning that they share different parts of their equipment rather than each site requiring its own equipment. This reduces operating costs and simplifies network architecture allowing for faster and larger-scale deployments.
  • ORAN is about openness. Where traditional RAN solutions generally require telecommunications operators to work with a single supplier across an entire mobile site, Open RAN facilitates multivendor environments, thus encouraging competition and innovation in the market.
  • VRAN is about virtualisation. VRAN is seen as the next step in the evolution of cellular networks, particularly in advancing 5G. VRAN decouples network hardware from software to enhance scalability and agility.

And let’s not forget that something like satellite connectivity has potential to change the game entirely. In the case of satellite, cost remains a major inhibitor but as use increases, costs will naturally come down. Walker points out that internet systems such as Starlink, the world's first and largest satellite constellation using a low Earth orbit to deliver broadband internet, almost eliminates the need for telcos entirely because satellites don’t have to link up with base stations on the ground.

And, given South Africa’s energy woes, local mobile operators are increasingly looking Open RAN to build their mobile networks. Not only does Open RAN reduce power consumption and emissions, it also promotes vendor diversity and creates opportunities for smaller suppliers to enter the game.

So what should telcos be doing to prepare for the future of their industry?

Walker advises that they wait. This doesn’t mean they should sit back and do nothing but he wouldn’t suggest that they make any big and bold moves just yet. “Take a strong observatory approach. Get your periscope up there and be on the lookout for what’s happening.” He also suggests that local telcos get close to the players in the market that are making big strides in the network innovation space so that you can keep an eye on what's going on. “And, perhaps more importantly, watch what your clients are doing so that you can identify potential avenues to apply modern solutions and technologies to replace existing processes and improve business outcomes.”

* This feature was first published in the April edition of ITWeb's Brainstorm magazine.


* Article first published on