In a recent article in Ghana, the Telecom Regulator was advocating for Ghana to embrace 5G now. That may be too early in my view. Clearly, Africa needs a good telecommunications infrastructure. We need to harness benefits such as Telemedicine, distant learning, and video conferencing in health, education, and transportation respectively. We need advanced systems to fight corruption and even prevent it in the first place. However, is the answer 5G? Do we actually need 5G in Africa to realize these benefits? I don’t think so.
What is 5G?
5G is the advanced form of the current high-speed mobile broadband we so much love. This technology, which promises Gigabit speeds is still being developed in labs all over the world. We expect that commercial trials of 5G will begin from 2019 – 2020 and the technology will mature around 2025. Mobile communication has evolved over the last 20 years from analog (1G) through 2G, 3G, 4G and the future, 5G.
4G (LTE) brought us speeds around 20Mbps which is suitable for most applications. We can check emails on the go, do our mobile banking, and many useful applications. We can do all the social media stuff and download a standard 2-hour movie in 10 – 15minutes with such speeds. After all, why do you need to download a movie in seconds if it will take you 2 hours to watch it? What will you gain or lose by the extra few minutes it takes to download? 5G is great, but current 4G speeds are fit for purpose at least for a few more years. With all the benefits it promises, I believe 5G is a ‘want’ and not a ‘need’.
What is the problem with 5G?
There is actually no real problem. I am however of the opinion that we need to maximize the already deployed 2G, 3G, and 4G before thinking about 5G in Africa. Here are some reasons why I think 5G is a bit premature in Africa:
- The health implications of extra radiation on the body is not proven. 5G will operate at higher frequencies, cannot travel long distances, and will be absorbed by trees, buildings, and people. Whether that will give us cancer or not, we do not know. Let’s let other people experiment with it till about 2025 and then we can consider going in for it.
- With all our teething developmental problems in Africa, 5G will just widen the developmental gap between developed and developing countries. This is because whiles others apply 5G for advancement in robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous cars, Internet of Things (IoT) etc., we will be using it for Whatsapp and Youtube.
- The continent has not benefitted fully from 4G. Regulators need to ensure that mobile operators deliver what they promised with 4G before granting them 5G licenses.
- 5G technology requires new phones, tablets, and devices for which we do not have the money to spend. If even half of the 4G smartphones currently in use globally end up as second-hand phones in Africa, there will be no need to spend extra cash to get 5G phones.
- 5G in Africa will obviously create new jobs but the scrapping of older technologies will also scrap more jobs. Since Africa does not have the skillset for 5G now, let’s keep our old technologies and jobs till we are prepared for the new ones.
Can Africa develop fast enough without 5G?
If the pace of development in Africa was linked to how fast new technologies are adopted on the continent, then 5G would be an answer to our problems. Unfortunately, that is not the case. We have adopted every new technology but the benefits are not felt by the society as a whole. In fact, I am very sure Nigeria (over 170million mobile subs) has more of the latest iPhones and Samsungs than the entire population of Ireland (5 million). Yet, its development is lagging far behind.
5G promises faster speeds but do we actually need 5G in Africa to develop? I believe there is a tipping point beyond which the incremental benefits of increased broadband speeds, adds no value. Within the last 20 years, we have moved from 1G to 4G, from dial-up speeds to incredible Gigabit speeds and yet not much to show in terms of development. We have more pressing problems in Africa than 5G. We need to use our already deployed networks fully to fight mismanagement, incompetence, and corruption (borrowing from the words of the Vice President of Ghana, Dr. Bawumia). Once we solve these issues and the developed world fully tests 5G, we can adopt it in its matured state around 2025.
Conclusion: Do we actually need 5G?
5G promises many good things. Its application will lead to advances in robotics, AI, autonomous cars, IoT. These things though needed are not essential to the development of Africa. They are luxuries that we can enjoy at a later date (post-2025). Let us use 2G, 3G, 4G, and LTE-Advanced to the fullest for our developmental needs first. 5G is a ‘want’ and not a ‘need’.