How 5G could drive 'inclusive growth' across AfricaThe expansion of 5G technology is set to transform business in Africa, though 3G is likely to remain the dominant mobile technology for some years.
The rollout of 5G technology across African countries is still in its early stages but “has the potential to drive unprecedented inclusive growth in Africa”, according to a finance leader in Nigeria’s telecoms sector, Omolara Michael-Nwadu, ACMA, CGMA.
Fifth generation — or 5G — is the new generation of wireless technology. It comes after 3G, which enabled smartphones, and then 4G, which facilitated faster browsing.
A report last year by GSMA, which represents mobile operators globally, said: “The 5G era has begun in Sub-Saharan Africa, but 3G will remain the dominant technology for the foreseeable future.” The report noted that commercial mobile 5G services have been launched in South Africa, with trials in Nigeria and Gabon in West Africa, and Uganda and Kenya in East Africa.
The report, The Mobile Economy: Sub-Saharan Africa 2020, predicts that from a 2020 starting point, 5G connections will reach 3% of the total across Sub-Saharan Africa by 2025. That translates to nearly 30 million mobile 5G connections.
Globally, by 2025, 5G connections will make up 20% of the total number of mobile connections with an estimated 1.7 billion connections, the report said.
Michael-Nwadu, who is general manager, financial planning at mobile telecom MTN Nigeria, said the company had held open demonstrations and had run multiple 5G trials two years ago under the supervision of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC). “However, there is still quite a bit of groundwork to be done before actual deployment,” she explained.
She said: “Many governments are showing positive interest in rollout such as Nigeria, [which] issued a draft consultation … on technical standards and road map; and South Africa made 3.5GHz spectrum available earlier than planned due to COVID-19. Togo [in West Africa] authorised trials using live equipment under real-world conditions.”
Michael-Nwadu said smartphone adoption is rising rapidly across Africa and with it a growing shift from traditional voice to data services. She said: “4G is being adopted by mass markets, and operators are making significant progress in network modernisation.”
UK-based independent telecoms consultant Ade Ajibulu highlighted the diversity of the continent. He explained: “So you have … some countries, like Botswana and South Africa, particularly, where the penetration of the [mobile] technology — the number of users — is as high as it is in Western Europe and North America.”
Ajibulu said that one benefit of advanced mobile networks for consumers is its higher speed, which allows much better quality for downloads and streaming video.
Business use cases
From smart machinery that can use real-time data to optimise its performance to transport networks and traffic management, 5G has potential across many sectors. In accounting, it will allow advances in cloud-based accounting software and, in financial services, faster and simpler payment options and improved fraud detection.
Ajibulu said that in agriculture the use of 5G with IoT (internet of things) sensors can “assist farmers in optimising the soil conditions for their crops … so that the sensors detect the level of humidity and, potentially, level of nutrients and temperature”.
In construction, Ajibulu said, an architect based in a capital, or even based in another country, can make a virtual site visit with the local contractors to check that building plans are being followed correctly, deal with any problems that occur, and not have to travel. “That can drive quite significant increases in productivity and efficiency,” he said. There are also the environmental benefits from reduced business travel.
For Michael-Nwadu, “5G will transform the way we live and work.” 5G’s low-latency [communication response time] and ultrafast speed will support smart cities, smart homes, smart agriculture, industry 4.0, connected health, and connected vehicles, she suggested.
She said: “Competition will increase due to new products and services, as well as the availability of business intelligence which can be actioned to accelerate time to revenue.
“Innovation will increase due to reliable high-level computing and more immersive customer experience.”
In addition, operational efficiency will increase as smart and connected devices boost productivity, automation, and machine learning to replace costlier processes, she said.
The GSMA report highlighted the trend in mobile technology investment. It predicted that between 2019 and 2025, mobile operators’ 5G capex would be $15 billion out of a total capex of $52 billion. The report said: “Despite economic uncertainty, operators will continue to invest in infrastructure rollout, especially mobile broadband networks; 5G will account for the majority of capex from 2024.”
5G is much faster than 4G and 3G, but it also offers greater capacity — more devices can be connected in a small area.
It also has reduced latency, which OFCOM, the UK media and telecoms regulator, describes as “the time between instructing a wireless device to perform an action and that action being completed”.
“5G has been designed to have very low latency, which is not important … in every kind of service, but it’s important in some areas where … for example … you need an instant response between a person and a wirelessly connected device,” Ajibulu explained. Healthcare is one good example of this, he suggested.
“Remote control surgery seems a long way off, [but there are] simpler forms of allowing a specialist who’s based in another city to be able to do some kind of intervention … in his office or her office [with] a remote piece of equipment which gives a haptic [touch] response.
“It could be that the surgery is done locally, but then you have a [remote] specialist getting live medical images and advising the surgeon in real time.”
— Oliver Rowe (Oliver.Rowe@aicpa-cima.com) is an FM magazine senior editor.