Something that We Cannot See Is Holding 5G Back in Africa
There is an intangible resource that most people do not know exists and cannot be seen or touched. That resource is holding Africa back from rolling out high-speed 5G mobile services. If we don’t solve managing this resource better, then we won’t get 5G in Africa and we’ll be left behind.
Spectrum is of critical importance in Africa. Not necessarily because Africans need high-speed mobile phone services, nor because they are likely to have tens of thousands packed into stadiums or highly dense areas (especially this year). And it’s not because self-driving cars will be populating the continent’s roads any time soon.
It is of critical importance because so few homes and businesses have fiber in Africa.
However, through Fixed Wireless Access (FWA/WTTx) solutions, 5G can provide fiber-like services without requiring the expense or time needed to install fiber. Upgrading existing base stations and deploying a CPE (Customer Premises Equipment) like a mobile router or dongle inside or outside an office or home instantly yields the fiber-like speeds that are critical for e-commerce and online learning. And now more than ever, it is clear how important both are.
Most people may think of spectrum as a range of colors in a rainbow, or a range on which political opinions belong.
But it also refers to the range of wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation. Even though these are generally invisible to the human eye, spectrum matters for communications, whether it is radio, Wi-Fi, mobile phones, or satellite broadcasts — all use electromagnetic waves to travel and reach a user.
The Role of Governments
The use of these intangible wavelengths are regulated by governments to prevent multiple users using the same frequencies of spectrum, as this would cause interference and nothing would reach the user. At a global level, the UN oversees a process for all countries to agree on the kind of users for different frequencies (such as for Wi-Fi, mobile phones, or meteorological use). At the national level, the government decides which specific organisations or companies can use that spectrum.
National governments often charge a fee to commercial companies for using this — one purpose is to recoup the costs for managing, monitoring, and enforcing the regulation of spectrum. Another is to generate revenue for the government. And a third (and arguably the most important) is to weed out those who may not be serious about using the spectrum. In other words, they want companies that have the resources to invest in the infrastructure to use it. So the thinking goes that if serious players can afford the spectrum, they can also afford to pay for the infrastructure.
Regulators want to support existing actors with solid track records to deliver infrastructure, but they don’t want to restrict new entrants to the market or innovation. So, they face striking a balance — to allow new companies to come in even if they do not have much in the way of resources yet, but are serious and could still make good use of the infrastructure in the future. There is also pressure from the treasury to generate as much money as possible. This may come from the richest companies, but could in turn affect these companies’ finances, so they cannot subsequently invest in building networks.
For high-speeds, it is necessary to have large amounts of spectrum in a big block. But right now, few companies in Africa have that, which means no company can provide it. Lots of companies each have small amounts of spectrum, so none can provide a high-speed network to lots of people. It is critical that this changes — and urgently. Companies, whether big or small, existing or new, must be given access to that spectrum. And there must be enough to go around, providing it is only given to companies that are really serious about using it and are seriously able to make the necessary investments.
During COVID-19, South Africa has temporarily made spectrum available to its operators. This has resulted in two new operators launching 5G (one launched last year with the spectrum it already had). With the affordability of Internet data creating such a critical challenge in Africa, the prices local operators are charging for 5G are telling:
- Comparing 5G with 4G, one operator will give you 10 times more data for only 4 times the price, or 40 times more data for only 6 times the price.
- Another provides unlimited data and charges by speed instead, just like a traditional fiber service, even though they are using mobile.
Countries like Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya have strong technology sectors, innovative local companies, a significant presence from international companies, and a strong focus on creating jobs involving technology. They need to move faster with 5G to ensure future development.
Future businesses in the technology industry and the profits, social impact, and jobs that come with that, rely on having high-speed Internet for consumers through FWA. Millions of Africans could use that connectivity to get trained online, get jobs online, earn money online, and create tech businesses. And now is the time to make that happen.
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Disclaimer: Any views and/or opinions expressed in this post by individual authors or contributors are their personal views and/or opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinions of Huawei Technologies.