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Is Africa ready for 5G mobile networks?

Is Africa ready for 5G mobile networks?

The evolution, or 'revolution' as network architecture experts would argue, that is 5G mobile networks is considered a reality today and the inevitable next level of core network infrastructure that will radically change B2B and B2C services. While ICT and telecommunications professionals agree that 5G, as the convergence of several influential technologies and a step up from predecessors 4G and LTE, is expected to enhance critical processes within key sectors like education and healthcare - are emerging markets ready to facilitate this technology development?

5G is the convergence of IP-based networking technologies including IoT/M2M, multimedia, Network Function Virtualisation, Mobile Edge Computing (MEC), Satellite Networks and fixed broadband, says Professor Thomas Magadanz from the Fraunhofer Institute FOKUS.

Among the advantages expected from 5G evolution and eventual deployment is enhanced mobile broadband and large-scale critical machine-to-machine communication within industry.

Speaking to delegates attending the 19th annual Southern Africa Telecommunication Networks and Applications Conference (SATNAC) 2016 in George, South Africa, Prof Magadanz said 5G is an agile software-defined network infrastructure for IoT applications and there is a need for the market to 'get 5G ready'.

Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri believes 5G will transform many aspects of live, with applications including healthcare, automation and connected driving. "Only 5G will deliver the capacity, connectivity and low latency to enable advanced applications, such as digital health - connecting medical practitioners with patients to continuously monitor vital signs, preventing conditions from becoming acute and helping doctors constantly adapt treatments to meet changing conditions."

Nokia says the path to 5G will enable major increases in LTE capacity, coverage and speed where and when they are needed, delivering up to ten times the speeds of initial 4G networks.

Last week the company announced the launch of 4.5G Pro and the future deployment of 4.9G technology, which it claims will make further enhancements in capacity, data rates and network latency, enabling users to maintain a continuous service experience complementing 5G radio coverage.

But while 5G networks are expected to deliver faster speeds for significantly more users on the same network and is geared for huge volumes of simultaneous connections with an impressive reduction in latency, how realistic is deployment and rollout of 5G in Africa right now?

Not really says Martin Ferreira, Executive Head at Jasco Carrier Solutions.

Ferreira says that Southern African countries have 3G and 4G capability, and there is scope to develop this into 5G, but this is limited to the metro areas. "There is not much infrastructure in the rural and sub-rural type of areas, and even in South Africa I think that is a huge problem... how successful do you think 4G was? I don't think it was, I don't have coverage at my home or when I move all over, I have hotspots where I can, so how successful was 4G? My philosophy is that 5G is going to follow that same route."

5G is not the 'silver bullet' to manage and leverage the significant increase in IoT driven traffic, and the reality for South Africa, according to Ferreira, is that this is dependent on governments willing to drive the enforcement of cheaper and more accessible frequencies to enable operators to cost-effectively provide more widespread services.

This scenario is being played out in many countries in Africa says Ferreira and he believes cost is even more of an issue on the continent. "I am in an environment where African countries are asking us for second hand devices that they can have under one hundred dollars... until you can get handset cost down, the infrastructure cost down in Africa, it's going to be a pretty hard sell."

Another challenge facing the continent is the lack of backbone infrastructure to support wireless and fibre technology says Ferreira. "You can have the best wireless infrastructure, but if you don't have the backbone to support it.... This is another problem facing South Africa and Africa."

The difficulty is that fibre coverage is concentrated in the metros and doesn't cover key industry development, which is located outside of the metros. "Yes, we can have wireless, but if you don't have the backbone, what do you do then?"

Ferreira believes that while some countries in Africa are making an effort to get spectrum and frequency allocation and management right, the ultimate success in South Africa taking up a leadership position and helping the continent cement service delivery and benefit citizens is dependent on collaboration.

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