What does the 5G future look like for African networks?

Communications Solutions   |    Jun 14, 2022    |    by Willem Wentzel

What does the 5G future look like for African networks?

Here’s why Africans really want open connectivity versus locked-in features

If you work for a mobile network operator or a service provider, there’s no doubt that the future is 5G. But 5G future applications and the future of 5G in Africa will be vastly different from elsewhere in the world.

Open RAN (O-RAN) will drive connectivity innovation in Africa rather than a features play.

That’s because Africa has pressing challenges and growing markets specific to the continent. These will drive how mobile network operators and service providers adopt 5G and why it will be a connectivity play rather than a feature-set play like it is elsewhere in the world.

The industry is rife with stories about the advantages of 5G versus 4G. The technical aspects relevant to business and even consumers’ lives are fairly well known. But how will 5G impact your life?

A lot of use cases describe utopian futures. But Africa has unique challenges that demand practical solutions.

There’s a lot of talk about smart mining, smart farming, smart healthcare, and the like. Those are superb use cases, particularly in those parts of the world where they can be easily and cost-effectively implemented to solve the primary related challenges in those regions.

But we have different challenges in Africa, so we don’t necessarily prioritise those use cases.

Our network operators need to connect more people, provide more cost-effective bandwidth that covers more of our continent’s enormous geography with signal, and offer a smaller niche of customers more advanced services.

We also need to improve the returns we get from existing kit and the networks that are already out there.

Why? Because there will soon be more than 1.5 billion Africans directly or indirectly looking for some form of cellular communications. And, because Africa is so huge (Africa is bigger than China, India, the US, and many European nations combined), wireless is the best way to get a signal out there.

The United Nations also notes that the pandemic worsened the situation so that, by 2021, 490 million Africans lived in extreme poverty.

In an increasingly connected world being offline means you’re excluded from the global economy.

African MNOs want to sweat assets, gradually adopt 5G, and build revenues today.

These characteristics mean there are people who live far out of town where there is almost no infrastructure who need a basic cellphone connection. 2G is good enough for them and they’re used to it. As you move closer to town, people are more affluent, and they want more bandwidth. There are also more of them. When you’re in the centre of a major city people want the highest bandwidth and the best services, which is now where 5G plays.

That’s the case for 5G.

The case for 5G in an O-RAN scenario is equally easy to understand.

The old way of building a network was to buy everything you needed from one vendor. Kit from different vendors didn’t talk to one another. So, although one vendor’s CU radios may better, you couldn’t use them. Lock-in proves expensive.

There was another snag. For example, if you wanted to upgrade from 2G to 3G you had to deploy new equipment. You either had 2G or 3G or 4G or whatever generation you were supporting.

With O-RAN, you can have equipment from any vendor who supports it. CUs from vendor A and DUs from vendor B. In the O-RAN base station, multiple vendors can provide the tower equipment, software, abstraction layer, compute, CU and DU, unlocking the core network.

At the end of the day you provide open interfaces and component-level interoperability. You get multi-operator RAN and multi-operator core networks. So that you can reduce your operator costs and create immediate commercial propositions to transform the network over time.

If you’re at a mobile operator or service provider talk to me. We can have a two- to four-hour discovery workshop. You can meet our local and global experts and together develop a picture of your journey to Open RAN.

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Wireless, 5G