Presented by Parallel Wireless

Is 5G a conversation we should be having in Africa, or not?

OpenRAN company, Parallel Wireless, a global leader in delivering software-defined, end-to-end OpenRAN solutions for coverage and capacity, looks at the if, when, and how 5G is relevant for the African continent.

5G is one such technology change that no service provider in any part of the world would like to miss out on.

Even if there are challenges in rolling out 5G services in Africa, as there are commercial as well as infrastructural issues related to the mass launch of 5G services, there is no question that 5G technology would give a massive positive boost to the region, which has for a long time, faced governance, social and economic challenges.

5G technology, owing to its inherent features like high data speed, low latency, effective use of spectrum  and better coverage, supports a larger number of devices. Low energy consumption also opens up a whole new raft of use cases.

The technology enables service providers to offer a number of innovative services like augmented reality, virtual reality, remote surgery, autonomous transport systems, industrial automation and more.

These 5G functionalities could help African governments across the continent, plug the gaps in governance and deliver essential services such as healthcare and education, on a mass scale by side-stepping infrastructural challenges that are inherent to the continent.

5G enables the authorities to provide services, including e-learning and e-health, through digital platforms, which is far more cost effective and sustainable than current traditional methods.

The challenge then, is to straddle the two priorities – spread existing 2G and 3G networks and take a technological leap to embrace 5G. Neither of these choices however, can be ignored or have one chosen above the other. Here’s why:

  • Africa remains one of the most under-penetrated areas as far as telecom services are concerned. The mobile penetration in Africa remains at 44%, which means over 600 million people in Africa are still without mobile connections.
  • The internet penetration on the continent is still at a paltry 25-30%.
  • Moreover, even as other parts of the world have been planning a transition from 4G to 5G services, 60% of the users in Africa are still on the 2G network. Also, it is unlikely that the transition would happen directly from 2G to 4G, let alone 5G. 3G services would most likely be the dominant technology in the region as GSMA Mobile Economy 2018 estimated that 62% of the users would be using a 3G network and only 30% would be using 4G network by 2025.
  • The same GSMA report predicts that a mere 3% would be using 5G network by that time. Despite the underwhelming predictions, the possibilities and potentials of 5G make it difficult for service providers to ignore it. (Also please note previous answers re low ARPU in rural and far-flung areas).

It is clear then, that telecom providers need to adopt a strategy that helps them do both – focus on expanding the existing networks, yet not missing out on getting on board the proverbial 5G bus.

Telecom service providers in Africa can overcome this dilemma by shunning legacy obsolete hardware-driven network systems, for a more flexible software-driven approach network system or OpenRAN.

OpenRAN means creating software-driven networks with minimal use of hardware.

OpenRAN reduces energy consumption and space requirement, and because it is software driven, it is therefore upgradable to future Gs including 5G, and hence, an overall cost reduction of the network.

However, apart from savings, software also makes the network more flexible and interoperable across all Gs.

A virtualised network comes with features like self-optimisation and self-configuration capabilities across all Gs – 2G, 3G, 4G, and 5G.

This necessarily means an existing network can be upgraded to a higher generation of technology without making significant changes in the network.

This encourages automation and programmability of the network. It also brings down deployment time and renders the network more flexible, easier to operate and maintain.

5G OpenRAN technology is an opportunity for the service providers in Africa to bring together all the Gs instead of increasing the network complexity by adding one more technology layer.

Virtualisation allows the service providers to achieve exactly this. The biggest advantage of unification is that it brings down the capital, as well as operational expense and at the same time, improves the experience for the end consumer.

So, the upcoming 5G technology is not just about coming up with new services but, is also a chance for service providers to leverage virtualisation to simplify networks.

As African service providers start to plan network architecture for 5G, they can use OpenRAN to consolidate their existing network and simplify it, making it easier to manage and also to bring down CAPEX and OPEX.

Virtualisation is a win-win for both service providers, as well as consumers who can expect better network coverage without having to pay extra.

OpenRAN also makes it easier for future upgrading, because let’s face it, 5G is not the end, only the beginning…

This article was published in partnership with Parallel Wireless.

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Is 5G a conversation we should be having in Africa, or not?