Experts doubtful Africa is ready for 5G
The major buzzword of the 2018 Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona last week was definitely 5G.
Every network operator and phone-maker wanted to talk about 5G but Africa was largely left out of discussions. So is the next-generation technology really a priority for the continent? And should it be?
The first commercial 5G projects are due to launch in the US by the end of this year, followed by Japan, South Korea, China and Europe between 2019 and 2021. However, in emerging markets, many telcos are still rolling out 3G or 4G, and many African countries are still heavily dependent on 2G.
"Here at MWC, everyone is talking about 5G, and 5G, of course, is going to bring along a lot of efficiencies but in Africa, in the continent where I am, have we really used 4G as yet?" Mariam Abdullahi, telco industry lead at SAP Africa, told ITWeb in an interview at MWC.
"If I look at big countries like South Africa and Kenya, in Kenya 4G has been launched by Safaricom and Jamii Telecom but really have we even covered 20% of the market with 4G services as yet?
"I don't think we can sleep on the job and not look at 5G; we have to look at it but let's look at 5G with our own unique areas," Abdullahi explained.
"Have we really exhausted the technologies that we have already and are we using them to capacity? Or is it just the next big thing to come up again? I think 5G is very big but we have a little while to go in Africa before we can deploy it. But at the same time, I think SA will definitely lead the way in 5G," she said.
Bello Moussa, Huawei director of innovations and industries relations for Southern Africa, was also not convinced Africa is ready for the next-generation wireless technology.
"From the use cases of 5G, which is extended mobile broadband which means higher throughput applications, ultra-reliable connectivity, yes there are applications for Africa. But the question is, is the ecosystem ready for 5G in Africa? When I say the ecosystem, we are looking at the devices, the network and obviously the end-users," he told ITWeb at MWC.
5G is expected to provide vastly improved speeds, more capacity and lower latency than 4G LTE and will support advanced use cases like self-driving cars.
"Now, when it comes to the network itself, one of the challenges in Africa will be the spectrum. We still do not have enough spectrum that would really benefit for 5G deployment. Many countries in Africa are still struggling to get 3G or 4G spectrum, let alone spectrum for 5G. So I think that we still have a lot to do.
"The prototypes are ready in the laboratory but some of the regulatory issues, like spectrum and some policy, should be put in place in Africa before we start thinking about the commercialisation of 5G, but perhaps some small-scale pilots can be conducted now," Moussa said.
Huawei will launch a 5G smartphone in 2019, Chaobin Yang, president of Huawei's 5G product line, said at MWC in Barcelona. At the event, the group launched a commercial chipset which supports the 3GPP standard for 5G as well as 5G customer-premises equipment (CPE).Qualcomm also showed off early 5G phone chipsets in commercial prototype handsets in Barcelona.
Moussa said there could be a possibility of a leapfrog to 5G in Africa because the continent does not have the old legacy systems or infrastructure that some other operators or countries are struggling to get rid of.
"Countries could start by building 5G infrastructure from day zero, but that may not be the real solution because certain applications can still be run on 4G, like Narrowband IOT [Internet of things] or cellular IOT, so we don't necessarily need 5G in Africa. But obviously, if 5G is there it's always good," Moussa added.
5G trials are taking place all over the world, including the much-publicised network set up for the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Many network operators showcased their successful proof of concepts at MWC and there was a feeling that global operators are now in a rush to get 5G up and running as soon as possible.
"I've had many meetings with customers this week and it is unbelievable how 5G has suddenly come into all of the discussions. They are even asking me if we can bring them 5G in the second quarter of this year, when it's only in the US that they are talking about it, but already in the Middle East a lot of 5G discussions are going on, but not in Africa," said Rafiah Ibrahim, head of Ericsson Middle East and Africa.
She said countries that are already talking about 5G in the Middle East are the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as they are all preparing for major events in the next few years which will need better connectivity, including the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. However, she says in Africa there is less urgency.
"We have to educate [our customers in Africa] with current 3G or 4G networks about how they evolve when the time comes for them to move to 5G. Or is it important for them to have 5G?
"Video-streaming uses a lot of bandwidth and latency needs to be very low if you are using machine-to-machine types of communication, smart metering, as an example. It is a different type of a network that you require, but it is also a spectrum issue in many African countries," she added.
Some operators in Africa are, however, already trialling 5G. In January, MTN and Ericsson announced their first 5G technology and applications trial in Africa, and Vodacom also announced in November it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Nokia to support efforts to launch 5G in SA.