Report: Africa’s Digital Future Depends on 5G Spectrum

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Emma Okonji

GSMA Association, the global body of telecoms operators has predicted in its latest report that innovative 5G services will generate as much as $5.2 billion of economic expansion, which is about 0.7 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in sub-Saharan Africa by 2034. 

It, however, stressed that such huge opportunity for Africa’s digital economy would largely depend on the availability of necessary radio frequencies around 5G network, including those known as ‘millimetre wave’ frequencies that would deliver ultra-high capacity and ultra-high-speed services. 

The report, therefore raised the alarm that efforts by the European space industry to unreasonably constrain the use of these critical frequencies has 5G’s future hanging in the balance.

Analysing the report, the Head of sub-Saharan Africa at GSMA, Mr. Akinwale Goodluck, said Africa must stand strong at the 2019 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-19) to protect its interest and secure its digital future. According to him, “5G will be an evolutionary step with a revolutionary impact, having a deeper effect on our lives than any previous mobile generation.

 “As mobile operators continue to expand 4G connections across the region, now is the time for African governments to lay the foundation for their 5G future by identifying the needed spectrum at WRC-19.”

The 5G mmWave spectrum is expected to be identified at an international treaty conference called the WRC-19, which would take place in Egypt, from 28 October to 22 November 2019, where 3000 delegates from over 190 nations will meet to agree on how spectrum may be used. 

According to the report, “European countries are determined to limit the use of this spectrum due to unfounded claims of potential interference with space services. Independent technical studies, supported by African countries and their allies in the Americas and the Middle East, have demonstrated that 5G can co-exist safely and efficiently alongside weather-sensing services, commercial satellite services and others.

“WRC-19 is the only opportunity for years to come for countries across Africa to secure mmWave spectrum for future use, enabling the delivery of 5G services over the next decade.” 

According to Goodluck, “Africa understands the need to strike the right balance between different users of spectrum. That is why African governments have actively supported technical studies that demonstrate how 5G can operate in these frequencies without causing harm to other existing spectrum services, including weather-sensing services, in neighbouring spectrum bands.”

Addressing the 5G opportunities for sub-Saharan Africa, the report stated: “In sub-Saharan Africa, the roll-out of mobile networks and services has allowed communities to leapfrog wired infrastructure and embrace the information age much quicker and more cost effectively than in many developed countries. Building on earlier generations, 5G brings new capabilities for mobile networks to enable economic growth. 5G, coupled with mmWave spectrum, opens up the potential for low-latency, data-intensive applications that are expected to transform a wide variety of industries and use cases. 

“These will benefit new applications, helping the region’s transport logistics infrastructure (in-land transport hubs and seaports) and extractive industries (mining and hydrocarbon production), among others.”

By enabling improvement to vital transport links in the economy, such as port logistics infrastructure, 5G is also expected to drive growth in the trade industry. Its application would also enable coordinated movement of goods and remote control of essential machinery, leading to more efficient port operations and lower costs, allowing for increased trade, the report further added.

The GSMA report, however, expressed concern that, without adequate support at WRC-19, the deployment of these 5G services may be delayed for up to a decade.