SA's golden 5G opportunity
The next era of connectivity (known as 5G) has tremendous potential to re-energise South Africa's flagging economy and return us to a leadership position on the African continent.
The 5G dream is one where ubiquitous, high-speed networks deliver digital services to millions of citizens at low-cost, supporting everything from self-driving cars to remote medical surgery, new immersive virtual realities, drone deliveries, AI robots, intelligent agriculture, connected cities, smart logistics and more.
"Surveys show that Internet penetration has a direct effect on a country's economic fortunes," begins Comsol CEO Iain Stevenson.
"Access to the Internet means access to new learning opportunities, new business opportunities, new technology, software and innovation, and new markets."
Stevenson points to a groundbreaking research paper released last year: The Internet as Quantitative Social Science Platform: Insights from a Trillion Observations*, which found a strong correlation between national connectivity levels and economic productivity.
"The paper showed that South Africa ranks low on the index. This leads us to think that connectivity could be one of the most powerful levels with which to spark increased economic output, higher employment and more innovation," he notes.
5G represents the fifth major evolution in the way mobile networks are designed. The first generation was basic voice services, while the second (Edge) provided very basic mobile browsing services. The third (3G) accelerated the speed of mobile services; and the fourth (LTE) brought us to where we are today.
"While each generation has represented an important step in the journey, these advancements could best be described as incremental," notes Stevenson. "Transitioning to 5G is, by contrast, an exponential step, unleashing speeds more than 100 times faster than 4G."
But it's not just about the pure uplink and downlink speeds. The way that 5G networks are designed means that far more people can be connected in any given area, and that handovers between base stations becomes more seamless. 5G vastly enhances other important performance benchmarks, like latency, packet loss and jitter.
"All of this is essential for businesses that are using advanced neural networks to crunch through massive volumes of data, or local governments co-ordinating the infrastructure of an entire city, or you and I sitting behind the wheel of a self-driving car."
SA's trailblazing 5G pilots
So, just when will 5G arrive?
While the International Telecommunications Union is expected to only ratify the standards about 18 months from now, many forward-looking telecoms players are already kicking off trials using various technologies and network designs.
"While we wait for consensus on the standards, there are some incredible 5G pilots happening across the world," explains Stevenson.
Following a global tour to see many of these trials first-hand, Comsol announced earlier this year that it's signed an agreement with global heavyweights Verizon and Samsung to build a 5G pilot network right here in Soweto.
"We chose the celebrated street of Vilakazi Street, the family home of two Nobel Peace Prize winners, to once again show the world just what South Africa is capable of," he beams. "Vilakazi Street is symbolic of progress and the potential of our people, so there's no better place to light-up with South Africa's very first 5G network."
Stevenson believes 5G will come to dominate local technology discussions over the next couple of years, as Comsol's pilot (and others that are kicking off locally) reveal the potential of the technology as our journey takes us into the fourth industrial revolution.
In fact, speaking at the recent BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, SA President Cyril Ramaphosa underscored the importance of SA taking a leadership role in the new technological era, telling ITWeb that "we should not allow technology to shape our societies. We must instead ensure the needs of our societies shape the technologies that we develop.
"We must ensure that mastery of the fourth industrial revolution does not become the exclusive preserve of just a handful of countries. We must promote inclusivity, diversity and co-operation."
As local industry players come together to establish the 5G landscape, these sentiments will be crucial to success, concludes Stevenson.