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Will 5G technology be Africa’s saviour?

Africa is beautifully poised to make the most of 5G revolution – always having been a mobile first continent.

By FRANCOIS VAN DYK

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” – Carl Sagan

Star Trek and the adventures of Captain Kirk, Mr Spock and the crew of the Starship Enterprise have been a staple of modern science fiction culture since the original series debuted in 1966. It has spawned many spin-off series and a hugely successful franchise of movies. It also predicted many gadgets which have since become common place. An obvious example was the communicator, a hand-held device with which they could communicate to each other and the space ship. Decades later the mobile phone is all pervasive and far superior to anything the original writers could imagine – social media, streaming video and applications like Google Maps in the palm of your hand have changed the way we live forever. Other Star Trek tools such as the tricorder (mapping terrain and even medical issues), video conferencing and their universal translator have also come to fruition in many guises.

5G Debut

Though the internet and subsequent smart phone technology have truly revolutionised our daily lives over the last 20 years, we are on the cusp of a major new revolution – with many people not even close to comprehending how our lives will change over the next two to three decades. A lot has been said about the Fourth Industrial revolution and the many applications it will have – from self-driving vehicles, drone deliveries, augmented and virtual reality and artificial intelligence. However, as the world is starting to see the introduction of the latest 5th Generation (or 5G) advanced wireless systems, it will usher in a whole new internet era which will bring many of these peripheral technologies to centre stage. The 5G technology has been in development for many years. According to Wikipedia, the US space agency NASA partnered with Geoff Brown and Machine-to-Machine Intelligence (M2Mi) Corp to develop 5G as far back as 2008. The South Koreans also started a research and development programme to investigate 5G technology. “NYU Wireless”, an academic research centre founded by New York University in 2012, also conducted ground-breaking research into the new technology.

South Korea became the first country to launch full commercial services of the cutting-edge mobile internet in early April 2019 with more than 40,000 people subscribing to this revolutionary service on launch day. Samsung has begun sales of its Galaxy S10 5G, the first mobile phone with built-in 5G technology. This now enables South Koreans to download a 2 Gigabyte high-definition movie to their phones within six seconds.

China has also invested heavily in 5G and Chinese companies own more than 3,400 patents in the technology. Huawei, the Chinese multinational telecommunications equipment and consumer electronics manufacturer, is the industry leader – with countries such as the US and UK warning that the company’s infrastructure could be a security risk for Western powers.

Africa poised for new internet era

Africa is beautifully poised to make the most of this latest connectivity revolution – always having been a mobile first continent due to limited fixed infrastructure like telephone and fibre internet lines. Even though many are deeply sceptical of Chinese investment and involvement in Africa an unexpected benefit could be that these technologies could surface here quicker than anticipated. South Africa’s Vodacom and MTN already ran limited 5G tests in South Africa and Lesotho in 2018 while Rain, a data-only mobile service launched Africa’s first commercial service by partnering with Huawei – albeit limited. Telecoms operators believe that by 2020/2021 5G will be widely deployed across the Middle East and Africa – although some regions will not yet be served. 

Ovum, a consultancy firm headquartered in London specialising in global coverage of Telecommunications, Media and Technology industries, estimates that 5G take up in Africa will start relatively slowly with only 1 million subscriptions by 2022. Its Africa Market Outlook 2018 report also predicts that four African countries would have launched 5G by then – Namibia, Mauritius, South Africa and Kenya. 

However, experts believe the continent has some way to go before benefitting from the new technologies. The 2018 Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona saw little mention of Africa. Huawei’s Southern African director for innovation, Bello Moussa, believes the region`s mobile ecosystem and hardware needs a lot of work – also noting that many countries are still struggling to get 3G and 4G spectrums available.

Kenya experiments with 5G

Safaricom started a 5G network trial end-2018 with a new technology called TubeStar Base Station which will replace standard tower base stations for mobile coverage. Much less space will be required for these new base stations and it will typically be aimed at urban areas where there are space constraints. It will also negate the need for diesel generators as high-performance lithium batteries will be utilised as backups.

Though it is still early, Kenya will certainly be one of the early adopters of this technology in Africa. There will be a myriad of uses for such powerful connectivity powering many devices, gadgets and machinery. However – whether I will soon trust a self-driving car running on 5G technology, navigating Nairobi’s streets is a story for another time!

Francois van Dyk, @sbalie, heads Operations at Ornico, the Brand Intelligence research company. He worked in public relations before entering the world of media research. Email: francoisv@ornicogroup.co.za

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