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'SA not ready for 6G' as countries ramp-up research

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 13 Feb 2023

As countries across the globe intensify research and development efforts for the commercial launch of 6G in 2030, South Africa and its African counterparts are inadequately prepared for the sixth-generation wireless technology.

This is according to telco industry pundits, who believe the next five years will be crucial for the telco industry, as it paves a way for the 6G research journey, in parallel with the evolution of 5G.

South Africa and the rest of the continent are still awaiting a complete rollout of the 5G network.

While there is no universally-accepted government standard for 6G technology, according to telco industry body GSMA, 6G networks are expected to rollout commercially in 2030, with early adopters such as Asia forecast to start laying industrial foundations in 2028.

As early frontrunners such as Europe, South Korea, Japan and China race to be at the forefront of the 6G revolution, companies such as Ericsson, AT&T, Samsung, Nvidia, Qualcomm and InterDigital are investing large amounts of funds in initiatives positioned around 6G research.

The European Commission in October launched a flagship initiative with an almost €12 million budget to research 6G.

As interest in 6G gains momentum, industry pundits are not convinced Africa will be ready come 2030, as a result of a storm of events, including the lack of infrastructural development, inadequate spectrum availability, a dearth of funding and regulatory red tape governing 6G spectrum.

Paul Colmer, exco member of the Wireless Access Providers Association, tells ITWeb: “Are we ready for 6G? SA and Africa are absolutely not ready. We’re not ready, nor are we trying to be ready.

“But that won’t stop the large operators building and marketing 6G networks. That said, not many countries in the world are ready. Cost will be the biggest challenge. A 5G tower has a range of kilometres and services entire communities. With 6G, you’ll have to build exponentially more high-density, low-elevation infrastructure.”

According to Colmer, the majority of SA is low-density population (population per square kilometre), making it not financially viable for 6G. It’s going to require extreme capital expenditure compared to current technology, and “return on investment will be very difficult to justify”, he adds.

Explaining the second major challenge for SA and its African counterparts, he points out SA would require more spectrum in the right bandwidth – spectral bandwidths on 95GHz to 3THz (terahertz), as identified by the US Federal Communications Commission.

For 14 years, local mobile operators did not have new spectrum, not even enough for 4G. In March 2022, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) embarked on the first official spectrum auction in over a decade, raising R14.4 billion.

The auction involved six qualified bidders: Cell C, Liquid Intelligent Technologies, MTN, Rain Networks, Telkom and Vodacom, allowing some to start building 5G networks in selected areas.

Paul Colmer, exco member of the Wireless Access Providers Association.
Paul Colmer, exco member of the Wireless Access Providers Association.

“Without spectrum, 6G is a plane with no wings. Just as 5G was delayed in SA because of regulator issues, we can expect more of the same with 6G,” comments Colmer.

“That said, it’s not difficult to release that available spectrum, since it hasn’t got the congestion and user considerations of sub-6GHz issues, so we’ll have to see what ICASA’s viewpoint is about that spectrum when the time comes. They wouldn’t have even thought about it at this early stage.”

Unresolved load-shedding is another factor expected to hinder 6G rollout, he notes. “We currently don’t have enough power in SA to keep up with 5G rollouts. The idea of putting huge amounts of batteries and solar panels on dense 6G network sites with huge power requirements is at odds with our current reality.”

Willem Wentzel, GM of wireless at NEC XON, tells ITWeb that getting 6G off the ground in Africa will require the resolution of infrastructure issues and the attraction of substantial investment.

“For now, 5G deployments are progressing very slowly in Africa due to regulatory issues in frequency approval, and because standalone 5G networks – though cheaper than traditional networks – still need substantial investment to get off the ground,” says Wentzel.

While 5G is 100 times faster than 4G, 6G is expected to be 100 times faster than 5G, with more capacity and even less latency, according to research conducted by Ericsson.

Hossam Kandeel, VP and head of global customer unit for MTN and customer unit MTN Africa at Ericsson, tells ITWeb in an e-mail interview that 6G’s key benefits include that it will support a massive number of mobile connections and have more reliable connections than 5G networks.

“The changes that 6G will bring about in how we communicate and engage, conduct business and respond to urgent global crises will be extraordinary and mind-blowing.

“By delivering ever-present intelligent communication, 6G will contribute to the creation of a more human-friendly, sustainable and efficient society. 6G will make it possible to move freely in the cyber-physical continuum between the connected physical world of senses, actions and experiences and its programmable digital representation,” explains Kandeel.

Generational innovation

As the momentum behind 5G continues, the fifth-generation networks have already launched in more than 70 countries, and by nearly 200 operators, now covering half of global markets and almost a third of the world’s population, according to GSMA Intelligence.

This trajectory is set to continue, with around two billion 5G connections expected by 2025. This unprecedented growth represents the fastest generational rollout for the mobile industry when compared to 3G and 4G, says the telco body.

Ericsson predicts that by 2027, 80% of phone users in Europe will have 5G services and only 10% of phone users in Africa will have 5G subscriptions.

While Vodacom, MTN, Telkom and Rain all have active 5G networks, and are expanding them all the time, 4G and LTE still have an important role to play in Africa.

According to GSMA, 4G will continue to be the main contributor of new connections in Sub-Saharan Africa, with many of the countries in the region having invested in deploying 3G and 4G. 2G connections still account for about half of the total subscriptions, but these are projected to decline, as service providers migrate subscribers from 4G and 5G.

“Going by the rollout schedule of 5G, I expect South Africa to be among the first countries in Sub-Saharan Africa to launch 6G,” says Kandeel.

“A number of economies driving Africa’s digital economy today are also likely to be among the adopters of 6G, especially the countries that are known for their digital growth, leadership in technological infrastructure that supports innovation, and robust ecosystems that are supported by both policies and private sector.”