By Jacques duo Toit, Vox CEO
Although many South Africans view 5G as just a faster way to download videos and rich multimedia to their smartphones, it is enterprises and the industrial sector that have the most to gain from this fast-developing cellular network standard. So, what is the big fuss? It’s all about latency and the fact that this technology will enable us to make close to instant decisions.
At the time of its global commercial launch last year, at least 20 operators were deploying 5G (fifth-generation wireless technology) networks in almost 300 locations around the world. According to some estimates, 5G will support more than 10% of global mobile connections by 2023. The average speed of these will be 575 megabits per second, 13 times faster than the current average. For their part, South African consumers have been able to access 5G services since November last year. And while coverage is still limited, it will only expand as demand for high-speed mobile access drive operators to continue to grow their networks.
But contrary to popular belief, 5G does not provide compelling benefits for consumers just quite yet. The sort of speeds that sound like science fiction is still years away. Additionally, people are only now starting to tap into the potential of 4G and the experiential improvements it delivers to their digital lifestyles. Moreover, smartphones that support 5G are still prohibitively expensive for the bulk of the consumer market, further limiting its adoption in the short-term. And with data prices coming down, the status quo certainly presents a better value proposition than expensive (and limited) 5G.
Driving rapid decision-making with real-time data
On the other hand, for businesses and industrial users, 5G represents a potential pathway into highly valuable and emerging new use cases. Importantly, for companies and industry players that have both the infrastructure and the right technology partners, there are numerous value-adding enterprise and industrial applications that can rapidly offset the initial high cost of embracing the technology.
A recent Nokia study, for example, has found that video is the most immediate use case from a corporate perspective. Video monitoring is already extensively used in enterprise and industrial environments. Notably, what 5G does (and can do) is to unlock higher-value opportunities in this sphere. For example, combining video with real-time analytics to recognise faces and identify risks in sensitive environments can mean the difference between life and death. The same study has noted that energy and manufacturing companies are looking to leverage 5G for things such as infrastructure maintenance, remote machine control, and even cloud robotics.
Additionally, another emerging area whereby 5G can deliver significant returns is with IoT devices. These are now able to deliver more sophisticated diagnoses on infrastructure performance in areas that are too dangerous – or laborious – for people to continually monitor. And when it comes to IoT devices that are typically found at the edge of computing, the increased capacity of 5G means data can be analysed in real-time at the point of origin. For instance, machines in a manufacturing environment can be optimised to scale according to the capacity required. This can also enable proactive maintenance to take place by identifying potential breakdowns before they occur.
Looking ahead, 5G can also become instrumental in enabling companies to create multiple virtual networks using just one physical system. This introduces an integrated networking, computing, and storage environment previously impossible to do with 4G. As more countries, including South Africa, push the smart city agenda, 5G can facilitate comprehensive smart grids to manage demand-side electricity requirements. So, even something as routine as managing traffic congestion at peak times through 5G-enabled robots (that automatically adapt to usage patterns) can greatly improve service delivery.
Spectrum: the lifeblood of 5G
For South Africa’s business and industry players to fully embrace and realise the benefits of 5G connectivity, local operators have to gain access to key spectrum bands – a process which is currently shrouded in policy uncertainty. Yet without access to spectrum, SA industry will not get out of the starting blocks when it comes to 5G usage – and will arguably be left behind global competitors who are embracing technological development in the fast-growing digital economy.
Prior to the health crisis, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) was in the process of planning for the assignment of high-demand spectrum by auction. Yet in March, ICASA turned its attention to a spectrum relief plan to meet the sudden high demand placed on networks during the national lockdown.
More recently, the regulator stated that it will slightly delay the publication of the invitation to apply (ITA) for the wholesale open-access network and International Mobile Telecommunications spectrum (commonly known as high-demand spectrum). Disappointingly, this statement came despite the regulator’s briefing to Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Communications that the ITAs would be published “very soon”. The ITA is for licences for spectrum in the 700MHz, 800MHz, 2.3GHz, 2.6GHz and 3.5GHz bands, which the regulator has committed to auction by December.
This uncertainty and prolonged delay (resulting in the fact that operators are still not sure which spectrum blocks they will be able to gain access to come the auction process in December) is arguably inhibiting the country’s technological competitiveness and by extension, economic growth.
Given the fact that many of SA’s operators and telecommunications players are both highly innovative and committed to world-class service delivery, unlocking access to spectrum – and access to the transformative benefits of 5G – can propel the country into a new period of economic vitality and dynamic business growth.