[Column] Nicholas Naidu: Why 5G is Crucial to Closing the Digital Divide
It’s safe to say that high points during the COVID-19 pandemic have been few and far between. South Africans were, however, met with at least one welcome development earlier this year with the launch of the country’s first 5G which supports both commercial mobile and fixed wireless 5G services.
Although people were confined to their homes for an extended period of time during lockdown, many South Africans living in major metros were able to use 5G technology to stay in touch, work from home and keep themselves entertained.
Not surprisingly, the demand for data during this time was greater than ever before. Vodacom recorded a 40% increase in mobile data traffic in South Africa during the last week of June during the peak of the pandemic, compared with pre-COVID-19 lockdown levels.
As the citizens of the country increasingly turned to technology as a lifeline to remain connected to the outside world, the disparity of South Africa’s digital divide was brought all the more sharply into focus.
The challenge around internet access in South Africa is certainly not new. The broader sub-Saharan Africa region has long battled with widespread access to connectivity, with mobile internet user penetration across the region now sitting at 26% according to statistics from GSMA Intelligence, which is forecast to increase to 39% by 2025.
Looking specifically at South Africa, Statistics SA estimates that the country’s mobile internet access penetration is currently at 52.8% of the population.
The affordability of smartphones also continues to be a significant hurdle when it comes to closing the digital divide. In order to truly narrow the divide, there’s a great need to be able to provide both coverage and connectivity, as well as devices at a lower cost, especially for those living in rural areas.
According to the World Bank, for every approximate 10% increase in mobile broadband penetration, there is a 1% increase in GDP in a country.
Many people may not realise that newer generations of mobile technologies like 4G and 5G don’t just offer impressive, faster download speeds, they also have a key role to play in making it more cost-effective for network operators to provide internet connectivity to larger numbers of people.
This is because they can fit more data into the same amount of spectrum, which results in lower capital and operating expenditure costs versus continuing to roll out legacy mobile networking technologies to meet the exponentially growing demand for data services.
The possibilities are exciting. The unfortunate reality, however, is that only 9% of the total population in Sub Saharan Africa is currently connected using 4G, according to the GSMA.
Creating the foundation for a tech-enabled future
Spectrum allocation needs to be urgently addressed if sub-Saharan Africa is to bridge its connectivity gap. This is not only important for the sake of bridging the digital divide, but also for the region’s ability to remain competitive in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).
5G is quickly emerging as a key enabler of a new technologically driven world in the 4IR era. As a more efficient technology than its predecessors, 5G was designed to meet the growing data and connectivity requirements of modern society.
Not only does the latest generation of mobile technology use spectrum in a much more efficient manner than its predecessors, as mentioned above, it can also fit more data into the same amount of spectrum (known as spectral efficiency measured in terms of bits/Hz). This makes it a good option to provide fibre-like connectivity in areas which currently do not have fibre to the home or business.
5G will enable fibre-like speeds using the mobile network. The higher speeds from 5G will also enable entirely new applications in future like augmented and Virtual Reality (VR) which will be helpful to realise new applications such as e-education, remote healthcare and also entirely new forms of entertainment like watching a sports game live in VR from your home.
Another area which 5G significantly improves upon is latency. This is the time it takes for devices to send and receive signals between each other, which has become essential to applications that require near-real-time responses.
Improved latency will also support cloud gaming, smart homes, smart cities and mission-critical smart manufacturing and utilities.
5G devices are also capable of connecting many more applications and devices to the network. It is for this reason that the technology is widely viewed as the true enabler of the Internet of Things.
When it comes to people living in rural areas being able to afford 5G devices, it is worth noting that 5G devices are expected to become more quickly accessible to South Africans in future comparing the same time curve since the introduction of 4G devices.
This is already illustrated by countries such as China, where we have seen the wide proliferation of 5G devices in a fairly short space of time. The rollout of 5G in countries like China, USA, South Korea and also many European countries, will create economies of scale which in turn vastly improves the affordability of devices.
In addition to this, we are already seeing the introduction of increasingly cost-effective 5G enabled smartphones around the world, not just in the premium segment but also in the mid-tier segment.
South Africa has already seen the considerable benefits of 5G in catering for the increased demand for data during our national lockdown, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Higher generation mobile technologies have a vital part to play in driving a more equal and digitally-enabled future. It’s more important than ever to focus on making the widespread adoption of these technologies a reality.