• In the fast lane

    The features of 5G technology offer massive connectivity opportunities for corporates

    In the fast lane

    A 10 to 100x increase in data rate; 10x decreased latency; a 10 to 100x increase in number of connected devices; a 1 000x increase in mobile data volumes; 3x greater spectrum efficiency; and a 10x reduction in power consumption. That, in the words of the GSMA, is what 5G will offer over the capabilities of 4G.

    ‘These improvements are enabled by 5G’s more advanced core network technology, along with the use of more efficient radio technologies, more spectrum bandwidth and more densely built networks. However, while 5G offers superior performance over 4G, both network generations will coexist comfortably into the 2030s. Considering the time required to extend 5G coverage into less densely populated areas, users will continue to rely on 4G networks for 5G non-spots for the foreseeable future,’ says the organisation in its 5G in Africa: Realising the Potential report.

    5G technology, the fifth generation of mobile networks, has ignited a transformative wave across the globe. Its lightning-fast speeds, low latency and massive connectivity potential are compelling features.

    One of the critical facets of 5G is its ability to facilitate IoT. IoT devices offer enhanced automation and efficiency across industries such as education, healthcare, logistics, manufacturing, mining and agriculture, allowing them to be much more efficient.

    The MTN Group, Africa’s largest mobile provider in terms of subscriber numbers, has announced the formatting of 5G networks in several countries, including South Africa, Nigeria, Côte D’Ivoire, Ghana and Uganda. It is ramping up its roll-out of 5G sites, ‘targeting a population coverage of 10% to 30% in the medium term’, according to a company statement.

    In its year-end report for 2022, MTN Group CEO Ralph Mupita says the company had rolled out about 2 500 5G sites across the markets in which it operates.

    ‘In the period, we rolled out 3 498 3G and 7 993 4G sites, culminating in our 3G and 4G coverage increasing by 9 million and 45 million people, respectively,’ says Mupita. ‘In 2022, we rolled out 1 570 5G sites, mainly in South Africa and Nigeria, bringing our total number of 5G sites to 2 527.’

    In South Africa, MTN is rolling out 5G after winning spectrum in the auction held by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA). Additional spectrum is expected to be released in the short term.

    After winning 100 MHz spectrum for 5G in the auction, MTN became the first operator to launch 5G in Nigeria in 2022. ‘We are targeting 10% 5G population coverage by end-2023. The other spectrum winner is yet to launch its network,’ he says.

    Rival Vodacom, meanwhile, in March 2022, ‘acquired a total of 110 MHz high-demand spectrum as part of the ICASA auction and assignment process’, it notes in a press release. In the Western Cape alone, it adds, it has quadrupled its 5G network reach over the last year, with 200 base stations now offering 5G.

    Vodacom plans to invest ZAR570 million during the course of ‘this financial year into the region’s network as part of the company’s commitment to building an inclusive digital society. Of this investment, ZAR470 million is allocated to improve the quality, capacity and reach of the broadband network infrastructure in urban and rural areas. This network investment will continue to focus on further expansion of the 5G footprint, ongoing modernisation of the existing network infrastructure, and upgrading of base station sites with more LTE capacity throughout the province. This will provide an improved data experience for our consumers and ideal connectivity for businesses with growing digital needs’.

    In October last year, Safaricom launched the first of 35 5G sites in Kenya, and by July this year it had a total of 205. That month it announced it would add another nearly 600 by March 2024. Its domestic rival, Airtel, launched its 5G services across the country in the middle of this year.

    ‘We view 5G as being critical in delivering new solutions that will address economic development, healthcare, manufacturing, infrastructure and even delivery of government services,’ said Safaricom CEO Peter Ndegwa at the launch ceremony last year.

    Globally, 5G tech is being lauded for its fast data transfer rates, minimal latency and vast potential for interconnection

    Despite the huge benefits of 5G though, it remains to be seen how the technology will be completely rolled out in Africa, particularly outside major urban areas.

    ‘The 5G roll-out in Africa will take a different format to what we’ve seen in many of the pioneer markets,’ according to Kenechi Okeleke, director of social and regional research at GSMA Intelligence, in an interview with African Business. ‘The 5G roll-out in Africa will most likely take a phased approach, whereby operators roll out 5G based on the need and demand for it.

    ‘As an operator, you may be able to deploy 5G, but you also have to think about the ability of users in that location to get their hands on a 5G device. There is no point building a 5G network where people are not able to afford the devices they need to access that network.’

    This was a point emphasised by Ndegwa at the Safaricom 5G launch in October 2022 when he said there were around just 200 000 5G-compatible smartphones in the country out of nearly 27 million such devices.

    ‘Until 5G device prices begin to come down, it’s hard to see adoption levels rising faster than what we have currently projected,’ says Okeleke.

    Apart from affordability, many experts believe that the initial drivers of more widespread 5G adoption will be large corporates, particularly those that can take advantage of the data processing benefits of 5G. An illustrative example of this is the Phalanndwa colliery in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province, operated by Canyon Coal. MTN, Huawei and Minetec Smart Mining began collaboration last year on equipping the open-cast mine with its own private 5G network. The aim was to enhance worker safety and begin the development of tools to boost productivity.

    ‘Phalanndwa colliery offers the perfect combination of the right technology with the right scenario, where ultra-high bandwidth and ultra-low latency of 5G allows real-time communication among the mine workers,’ says Fortune Wang, director of Huawei South Africa’s carrier business, according to a report in WhyAfrica. ‘The deployment of more application scenarios promises incredible changes will be happening at Phalanndwa.

    ‘These include proximity-detection systems, vehicle detection, tracking system and wireless video surveillance.’

    The mine excavates and processes 120 000 tons of coal per month. ‘Practising responsible mining and looking after the safety of the mine and our miners are our primary goals at all times, and this switch to 5G and real-time monitoring of both staff and equipment will allow for greater levels of both efficiency and safety,’ Kgotso Mongalo, GM of Phalanndwa, told the news site.

    The use of 5G technology at the mine will just be the first of what will become an ever-more common business practice, even if the adoption of the tech by most people for use in everyday life is slower.

    ‘The decision on when to launch 5G is often based on a number of factors in the local market that reflect the readiness of operators to roll out 5G networks and readiness of customers – consumers and enterprises – to adopt 5G services and 5G-enabled solutions,’ according to the GSMA.

    ‘In Africa, the present-day scenario suggests that 5G mass-market readiness is some way off. Despite a sizeable market opportunity of a total population of more than 1.3 billion people in total, with most individual markets having populations of 5 million or more, 4G is still in infancy – accounting for just 25% of connections, on average, compared to 60% globally – and affordability of devices and digital literacy remain challenges.

    ‘Despite the challenge of mass-market 5G readiness in Africa, there are reasons to welcome the 5G era, not least because there would otherwise be a risk of exacerbating the digital divide that already exists between Africa and more advanced regions. Beyond that, digital connectivity, with 5G at the core, will shape the way people live and businesses operate in a post-pandemic world.’

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