Africa faces a predicament when it comes to expansion of telecom network in the continent. It remains one of the most under-penetrated regions in the world with even the basic 2G network yet to reach over 110 million people (as per GSMA report) in the continent, yet telecom service providers have started exploring the upcoming 5G services.
Some service providers in the region, including MTN and Vodacom, have already started testing the 5G technology. The dilemma that the telecom service providers in the region now face is whether to allocate more resources for 5G roll out or on priority fill the gaps in the existing network. In terms of expansion of the basic networks, service providers have some distance to cover before they can shift their focus on 5G.
The mobile penetration in Africa remains at 44%which means over 600 million people in Africa are still without mobile connections. The internet penetration in the continent is still at just 25-30% against the global average of 43%.
And while the talk is around roll-out of 5G network, 60% of the users in Africa are still on the 2G network. Going forward 3G would be the dominant technology in the region as GSMA Mobile Economy 2018 estimates that 62% of the users would be using 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. Should the telecom service providers then be going aggressive on 5G network roll-out given the low average revenue per user (ARPU) and smartphone adoption? Smartphone usage is a low 34% in sub-Saharan Africa against 57% globally.
5G: A giant leap
Notwithstanding the challenges for 5G launch in the African market, it is also true that the region can do with technological disruptions to enable it to tide over the problems of poverty, low growth and lack of infrastructure.
5G has a huge relevance for Africa, as it is an opportunity for the region to circumvent the current obstacles in accessing infrastructure. It enables the authorities to provide services, including e-learning and e-health, through digital platforms, which is more cost effective.
The 5G technology also enables a number of innovative use cases, including Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, remove surgery, autonomous driving and more. Though 5G will open up new business cases and new revenue streams for the telcos, it also means that the telcos need to make significant changes to their networks.
The service providers, therefore, need innovative solutions to address the current needs of their subscribers and also prepare the networks for 5G.
To speed up adoption of 5G, the service providers must adopt whole new approaches in the way networks are managed and operated. These include network slicing, network densification and above all virtualization:
Network densification: 5G network promises a low latency levels of less than 1 millisecond, deep and better coverage and support to high number of devices. To achieve all this, the service provider has to ensure that devices with the user and content providers need to be closer. This requires network densification, which means adding more cell sites, macro sites and deploy small cells to increase capacity of the network.
Network Slicing: Connecting millions of devices and providing customized services to different set of clients within the same network are other likely innovations of 5G network. For this to happen, the service provider should be able to offer signals at different speed, allocation and capacity. This is possible through network slicing. Slicing means dividing the network in different slices/parts, where each part works as separate virtualised network. Slicing allows customized services to be offered without incurring additional cost.
Virtualised network: The prerequisite for 5G expansion
For service providers in Africa facing the dual challenge of plugging the digital divide and at the same time making meaningful progress in 5G roll-out, virtualization can be a perfect solution.
Virtualization means shifting the network on a software-driven system thus minimizing the use of hardware. A software-driven network has multiple advantages. The system consumes less energy and space, and it is easier to upgrade the network for higher technology.
In Africa, where a majority of users are still on 2G network even as the service providers are looking to upgrade it higher generation network, shifting the existing network on a virtualised platform would mean lower cost of maintenance and expansion of the existing 2G networks.
This would free a lot of resources for the telcos to spend on shoring up their 3G, 4G and ultimately 5G networks.
Virtualising the existing network is like killing two birds with one stone – allowing the service providers to expand their existing networks in the unconnected regions of the continent and ensuring that they are able to use the existing infrastructure for the deployment of 3G/4G/5G or rather any `G’ when it becomes commercially viable.
It empowers them to react to the demand of the market without making significant changes to the infrastructure. Further it also comes with self-optimizing and self-organizing capabilities to support the telcos in their journey.
The solution is part of Facebook-led Open RAN Telecom Infra Project (TIP) initiative to promote innovation and open ecosystem in the telecom equipment space and has been deployed by major operators like Telefonica and Vodafone. MTN also plans to deploy equipment based on TIP specifications, which is more cost effective, making it easier for the company to expand in rural areas.
The Open RAN initiative endeavors to bring down the cost of Radio Access Network (RAN) by separating hardware and software elements. It further encourages the use of white box equipment to reduce the cost of network deployment. Open RAN initiative is designed to help the telcos bring down the expense of setting up network which in turn will help in connecting the unconnected.
Digitalisation is an important factor for overall social and economic growth. The 5G technology will help in addressing the digital divide and empower Africa to resolve the problem of difficulties in accessing the infrastructure. Virtualised 2G can enable the telcos to expand the network to meet the present-day market demands but at the same time prepare the networks for future.
By Lux Maharaj, Director Sales – Africa, Parallel Wireless