It is not without reason that the African service providers have started exploring 5G technology. South African operator Rain recently announced that they would be launching 5G services soon and MTN and Vodacom have also recently conducted 5G trials.
This interest in the new technology is backed by the fact that 5G is extremely relevant for the region. It offers an unprecedented opportunity for the government to make their services more accessible even in places which are difficult to reach or where there is no physical infrastructure. The authorities can use the technology to provide services, like e-health and e-education, through digital platforms thus making the services more accessible. There are innumerable use cases which promise to make it easier for underprivileged to use technology for social and economic growth.
The 5G technology enables ultra-high speed and low latency of less than 1 millisecond. This combination makes the technology unlike any other previous standard and allows a number of use cases like remote surgery, autonomous driving, augmented reality, virtual reality and many more.
The Catch-22 Dilemma
Even as Africa’s communications service provider start moving towards 5G, they need to grapple with the fact that Africa continues to be the most under-penetrated regions in the world. Nearly 600 million Africans are yet to experience even basic connectivity. The 2G network reaches only 110 million on the continent, and internet penetration is still just 25-30% against the global average of 43%. The smartphone usage at 34% in the sub-Saharan region is again much lower than the worldwide average of 57%.
The dilemma faced by the African telcos is should they focus on connecting the unconnected or should they start preparing for 5G? What further makes the decision tough is that the recent GSMA report predicts that only 3% of the population would be using 5G by 2025.
However, at the same time expanding in rural areas is also not without issues because of typically low Average Revenue Per User ARPU) in these areas. Not only is network deployment and management costs more in rural areas but the return of investment is also spread over a more extended period. Additionally, these areas are not yet ready for latest technologies like 5G and telcos are reluctant to deploy traditional 2G which is tough to deploy and upgrade.
The Network Transformation
Further, the journey to 5G demands significant changes to the network. The current networks infrastructure is not geared to address the demands of the upcoming 5G technology. The African service providers will need to adopt newer technology concepts like network slicing, network densification, and virtualization.
Network densification empowers service providers to offer services which demand extremely low latency. Many critical communications services are possible because of the low latency of 5G. In network densification, the service providers need to ensure that the user devices are closer to the content providers data centers. The service providers would need to add more macro and small cells to enhance the quality and capacity of the network.
On the other hand, with network slicing the network operators can create separate virtualized networks with different SLAs. With network slicing each slice operates as an independent virtualized network, so the service providers will be able to offer customized services to different clients from the same network.
Virtualization: Crucial To Connect The Unconnected
Virtualization is the most relevant technology concept for Africa because it allows the service providers not just to address the digital divide but to also prepare the networks for 5G. Basically, it involves shifting from a hardware-based system to a software-based network, which makes it more agile flexible and energy-efficient. It is also easier to manage and upgrade and is even more cost effective.
The most significant advantage of this is that it allows service providers to smoothly move from 2G to 3G, 4G or 5G only when the market is prepared. Virtualization enables the telcos to expand in the newer and rural markets without worry about upgrading. It comes with self-optimizing and self-organizing capabilities, which makes it simpler to deploy and manage.
The solution is part of Facebook’s Open RAN Telecom Infra Project (TIP) initiative which was formed to drive innovation to bring down the cost of deploying Radio Access Network (RAN) by separating the hardware and software components. It encourages the use of white box equipment to bring down the cost of deploying the network. By reducing the cost of network deployment, this approach allows the telcos to expand in rural and newer areas, which helps in connecting the unconnected.
Access to affordable and quality communication services is must for the overall growth of the region. While there is little doubt that 5G will play a crucial role in helping the government address major issues like poverty and access to infrastructure, but the need of the hour is to provide connectivity in all areas. Virtualized 2G helps telcos meet both these objectives.
Contribution by Lux Maharaj, Director Sales – Africa, Parallel Wireless