LEBO MASALESA AND GUGU MTHEMBU: Beyond the hype — does 5G in Africa herald a new digital dawn?
The promises of 5G are real, but realising them requires creativity and patience
In China’s capital, Beijing, you can hail a driverless taxi thanks to the power of artificial intelligence (AI) and the speed of 5G network connectivity.
China’s robotaxis, led by Baidu’s Apollo service in Beijing, Changsha and Cangzhou, might once have only lived in the pages of science fiction, but it is real. The Baidu Apollo fleet of 500 autonomous vehicles has so far covered more than 7-million kilometres without a single accident and has safely carried more than 210,000 passengers.
That would be impossible without the low-latency communications that 5G enables. In China 5G is expected to overtake 4G as the dominant technology, with the number of 5G-enabled smartphones in that market now passing 737-million, about 43% of all domestic mobile phone devices.
By the end of September China had rolled out some 3.19-million 5G base stations, enabling a digital economy that now contributes 5.5% to China’s GDP, some $1.1-trillion of economic value.
Looking at China today, it’s tempting to think that this is a peek into the future, allowing many other countries, including those in Africa, to imagine how 5G technology will transform not only the digital economy but the brick-and-mortar economy too.
But as transformative as 5G might be it is also terribly over-hyped, with many of the more headline-grabbing use cases still over the horizon of practicality for most countries.
For Telkom, as we pursue our strategy to position the business as an infrastructure-focused national asset leading SA’s digital future, 5G is a key enabler of that strategic vision.
Telkom has significant critical assets, such as its 170,000km footprint of fibre, which is needed for the kind of backhaul bandwidth required for 5G, as well as its spectrum assets and growing base station infrastructure.
Telkom’s focus for now is on delivering lightning-fast 5G fixed wireless access solutions and then to offer mobile solutions as the volume of 5G devices on our network grows, a development that is anticipated in the near term.
This approach is similar to other significant players on the continent such as Safaricom in Kenya, which has also followed a fixed wireless access and retail customer approach. Botswana, Nigeria and other countries with low fibre penetration have also embraced fixed wireless access solutions.
Fixed wireless access solutions are widely considered to be the most widespread initial consumer application of 5G on the continent as a viable means of enabling connectivity for homes and enterprises and enabling high-bandwidth applications such as video streaming.
For Telkom this is a market-led approach that sees the products and services that are offered change as the population of 5G capable devices grows on the network. The mobile market will ultimately deliver the scale required to justify the further substantial investments required to make 5G as ubiquitous as 4G or LTE.
But even as this unfolds there are examples in SA and elsewhere that show how 5G can enable important innovation in industry and other sectors. For example, Telkom business unit BCX collaborated with partners Huawei and MPI Mining Solutions to implement a 5G-enabled smart mining solution at Nungu Mine in Witbank.
The project uses 5G connectivity, sensors, drones and AI analytics to enable innovations such as facial recognition proximity detection, remote monitoring and autonomous drills and vehicles. We believe these 5G-enabled technologies will significantly enhance the mine’s efficiency and safety.
Other players in the SA market have launched similar initiatives. MTN has projects in mining and at the ports, and Vodacom has projects in mining, where internet of things strategies are being readily embraced.
We also anticipate that 5G will be a significant enabler of SMMEs, allowing small start-up internet service providers to be able to offer broadband products to localities where these would not have easily existed before.
Of course, compared to world leader China Africa’s 5G journey is just beginning, but the rate of growth suggests the technology will become ubiquitous in the next few years.
An Ericsson Mobility report estimates that Sub-Saharan Africa had about 3-million 5G subscribers at the end of 2022, but this was expected to rise to over 140-million by the end of 2028, an exponential growth curve.
In SA, where true 5G growth has been enabled by the successful spectrum auction that was completed in March last year, the growth has also been hockey-stick-shaped, notwithstanding challenges including endemic load-shedding and general economic malaise.
While rural coverage remains low, urban coverage is growing rapidly, with KwaZulu-Natal at 43% coverage at the time of the Icasa report’s data. Enabling infrastructure in the form of 5G base stations increased significantly from 1,535 in 2021/22 to 4,502 in 2022/23, the Icasa report shows.
An important utility of 5G is to add new layer of capacity on top of 4G, which still has a long life ahead of it as demand for mobile data inexorably grows. In 2022 South Africans consumed nearly 100 times more mobile data than they did in 2012, the year 4G was launched, and 24% more than they did in 2021.
As the technology becomes more prevalent, continuing investment in 5G will start to make other use cases viable. The International Data Corporation’s TechScape report identifies some 22 use cases for 5G touching numerous industries from entertainment to utility management, medicine, education, communications and retail.
However, as we have cautioned, there are significant headwinds to realise the ultimate impact of 5G. For example, many of the enterprise use cases for 5G require the codevelopment of other technologies such as AI software or sensor hardware to make them practical, and this is one barrier to scalability and the ubiquitous presence of 5G solutions in many industries.
In other use cases, existing 4G and LTE may already deliver sound solutions where ultra-low latency or the bandwidth of 5G is not a requirement. But there is no doubt that the proliferation of 5G technology represents a significant breakthrough, as demonstrated by its transformative effect in countries like China and elsewhere.
As Africa embraces the 5G landscape the continent can chart its own course, as it has done so often before by focusing on tangible use cases and remaining open to unexpected applications. The promises of 5G are real, but realising them requires creativity and patience.
• Masalesa is managing executive, and Mthembu chief marketing officer, at Telkom Mobile Network.
Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.