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Digital Inclusion

From 5G to 2G: What Is Relevant Depends on Where You Are

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As the memory of the manic Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2018 in Barcelona continues to fade from memory, the one thing that is indelibly etched in the consciousness is that 5G was the main theme.

Post-MWC, I wrote a short summary of the show, which can be condensed into four points:

    1. 5G is coming -- but it means vastly different things to different operators globally

    2. AR and VR are merging into a single immersive experience enabled by superfast connectivity and cloud-available content

    3. Rural connectivity is still an afterthought -- we have a long way to go to meet the sustainable development goals (SDGs)

    4. AI -- we are not there yet. And Artificial Intelligence and Machine learning are two very different things. What people are touting as AI this year is, in my opinion, really machine learning. We are moving closer to the point when machines can take that next step -- but we are not there yet.

This article is to contrast points 1 and 3. Since MWC, which finished little more than a month ago, I have travelled to Namibia, Ethiopia and Uganda. And the market priorities for mobile operators in those countries is vastly different to what was showcased at the Barcelona event.

The key themes of the MWC 2018 event in Barcelona were more relevant to other markets than to Sub-Saharan Africa.
The key themes of the MWC 2018 event in Barcelona were more relevant to other markets than to Sub-Saharan Africa.

I had the privilege of participating in two panel discussions at Extensia's annual Innovation Africa Digital Summit that took place recently in Addis Abba, Ethiopia. The first was covering the topic of infrastructure sharing in the telecoms sector, while the second focused on 4G and the success factors for African launches.

These conversations were very different to the ones that took place in Barcelona. In Africa, 5G is not expected to be launched in any major way in the foreseeable future: Currently there is one operator talking about an urban trial at some future point in time.

5G was the dominant theme at MWC 2018 but it's not so relevant to Africa currently.
5G was the dominant theme at MWC 2018 but it's not so relevant to Africa currently.

In Addis Ababa, the conversation was still about how to 'Connect the Unconnected' in Africa. The GSMA recently published its The Mobile Economy 2018 report, which shows the stark realities of what is currently working and what is needed. Globally it states there is currently a 66% unique subscriber penetration with the expectation that this will grow to 71% by 2025.

Let's think for a second what this means: About one in three people do not have access to mobile communications globally. This isn't about mobile broadband -- these people have no form of mobile communication whatsoever, whether voice, text messages or anything else.

And the situation is even worse if one looks at Sub-Saharan Africa, where this same report shows a 44% SIM penetration rate for the region in 2017, growing to 52% by 2025.

The end result of this is that any mobile interventions are currently useless for more than half of all people in Sub-Saharan Africa. That means: No financial inclusion through mobile financial services; no mobile health initiatives to educate and assist in the well-being of our people; and no E-government solutions to help people feel connected to their governments and make them feel part of the decision-making processes. All of these services could be offered through the most basic 2G services via USSD, SMS, voice and IVR (Interactive Voice Responses – voice menus).

So why is this the case? Mobile operators have been concerned about the rural dynamic and have been profitably covering such communities. This has vastly changed during the past two years, with the costs of covering rural communities continuously on the decline. This now makes it possible to cover small populations with 2G coverage.

This rural coverage problem is not going to go away overnight. We have been discussing this at conferences for more than 10 years -- the same conversation is taking place.

Infrastructure sharing, one of the topics covered in Addis Abba, will make a difference: The more sharing that can take place in a market, the better the economics are for the entire market. Fiber networks have been shared for many years and we have seen a reduction of retail data prices because of this. Passive infrastructure (tower and power infrastructure) in the mobile space has been shared for some time, and, to a lesser degree, this is assisting in the price reduction in the mobile space.

So, what next? Sharing of the active telecommunications equipment, sharing the radio access network (RAN), seems like the obvious next step. But there is some hesitation from both the mobile operators and regulators. But the feeling in the market is that, over time, it will happen and become more commonplace. This should assist with more coverage and in bringing down the overall market price of reaching far flung communities.

Furthermore, the overall cost of communications infrastructure equipment is falling. Open source-based technology is becoming more popular: Vodafone has announced that Open RAN technology and Facebook's OpenCellular wireless access platform, which were developed within the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), would be trialled across its network. Both of these initiatives help to reduce the cost of equipment used to connect remote communities.

As these initiatives get off the ground, expect to see large deployments of projects to connect the unconnected in never seen before numbers. This will start to have the impact that we have been talking about in the industry for years.

So the relevance of technology developments really does depend on where you are in the world. While first world countries are talking about their 5G trials in urban centres, about reaching maximum penetration and capex spending on 4G networks, Africa is talking about reaching more people with technologies that are relevant to the devices that are on the ground. And for most communities in Africa, these are 2G devices that often don't even have WiFi capabilities -- the FM Radio and torch application are the most used functions.

Relevance, rather than the advancement of technology, is the key. In our daily conversations, let's keep this in mind and cover more people and Connect the Unconnected in Africa. It is needed. It is time, and we, as a continent, have an obligation to our people that live in communities that are not yet covered.

— Bradley Shaw, Regional Manager – MEA, NuRAN Wireless

Disclosure: NuRAN Wireless is a member of the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) and a participant in TIP's OpenCellular program.

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