Expectations for 5G are high, with many assuming it will deliver a transformative promised land, adorned with an improved end-user experience, new business models, new applications and new services all gliding beautifully on the back of gigabit speeds, improved network performance & reliability. Its services have been forecasted to deliver very significant economic gains.
To not be left out of the 5G race and also bridge the looming digital divide, African countries and taking bold steps in preparation for the advent of the 5G network. Although the mobile industry & international standards-making bodies are busily developing the technologies that 5G will be centered on, National Governments & regulators will be a major catalyst in ensuring the success of this service.
How do we get ready for 5G?
Despite the potential benefits of 5G in Africa, there are growing concerns on the prematurity of 5G. The commercial rollout of 5G might prove to be a daunting task, taking into account the high level of investments required.
Reports have estimated that assuming backhaul is commercially feasible, the cost of deploying a small cell ready 5G network can range anywhere from $6.8 million for a small city to $55.5 million for a large, dense city.
In consideration of this, investments are most likely to go to the implementation of 5G in the large dense urban areas, which would mean rural areas will not have access to the 5G network, this, in turn, will only further increase the digital divide.
With the large proposed economic impact of investment in 5G, policymakers have been advised to conduct an independent economic benefits assessment in both urban and rural areas and to support commercial and legislative incentives to stimulate investments in the use of Sub-1 GHz frequency spectrum (which is an electromagnetic spectrum through which 5G carries information through wirelessly) which would allow mobile operators cover wide areas at lower cost to counteract the possible digital divide in rural areas in Africa.
What are the strategies for the transition from 4G to 5G?
Radio spectrum, backhaul, softwarization of core networks and radio access networks will be vital in every deployment of 5G networks in Africa, particularly where Enhanced Mobile BroadBand (EMBB) is concerned. As most 4G mobile network deployments are currently based on macro-cells, the macro-cells that cover large geographical areas will struggle to deliver the dense coverage, high bandwidth & low latency 5G requires.
In sight of this fact, wireless operators are investing in the densification of their 4G radio access networks by deploying small cells. These small cells cover a smaller geographical area than the macro-cells but increase network coverage, capacity & quality of service.
This will boost the capacity & quality of existing 4G networks while laying the foundation for commercial 5G networks & EMBB services.
MTN South Africa is already making plans in preparation for this massive digital revolution, making Ericsson their 5G modernization vendor in a recent contract signing. Ericsson will be responsible for modernizing MTN’s existing Radio Access Networks (RAN), providing 5G products and solutions, and also working to identify and develop 5G uses cases that are relevant to their current market.
How Can We Achieve a Seamless Commercial 5G Launch?
- Policymakers in Africa need to take measures in streamlining the deployment of small cells, which may include permitting wireless operators to deploy small cells on street furniture, limit permit charges for attaching equipment.
- The investment in full fiber penetration, as only 5G cell sites with fiber optic cables, can support the latency tolerance required by 5G applications.
- As copper access prices are the go-to from a fiscal standpoint, policies and financial incentives should be implemented to encourage copper to fiber migration.
- Originally, National Regulation Authorities have granted spectrum licenses to mobile operators, giving them exclusive rights to offer voice & data services. Moving forward, policymakers may want to consider the use of a licensed, unlicensed & shared spectrum to create a balanced spectrum ecosystem.
The Next Step for 5G in Africa
5G is expected to play a vital role in digital economies, providing new business opportunities and enhancing the citizen’s life experience. Despite that, real care must be taken in establishing whether commercial 5G is a real priority for the economy.
The “urban-focused” strategy will have an adverse effect on the digital divide since the possibility of 5G in rural areas is still not plausible. The government should recognize this risk and take steps to counter it.
The high investment levels 5G requires are making operators skeptical about their return on investments and so they’re currently investing in 5G testbeds in larger cities with advanced 4G deployments & infrastructure.
The uncertainties surrounding the commercial deployment of 5G in Africa and its affordability and availability to the general public remains a constant problem in investment cases.
There is also the danger of behind left behind by other developing nations in the coming digital revolution.
These concerns are bringing wireless network providers, operators, industry experts, and policymakers to the forthcoming 5G FORUM – NEXT DIGITAL REVOLUTION IN AFRICA holding at the Protea Hotel – Johannesburg Parktonian All-Suite, Johannesburg, South Africa on the 7th – 8th October 2020 with Ahmad Husseini / Head of Network Solutions, Global Customer Unit MTN / Ericsson addressing these critical issues and tackling possible solutions for the effective commercial release of 5G in Africa.