5G and the next Billion Mobile Users: A view from Africa

CTN Issue: December 2015

Alan Gatherer, Editor in Chief, ComSoc Technology News

Continuing our occasional series on the role of 5G in the connection of the next billion wireless users we have invited Fisseha Mekuria from the CSIR Meraka Institute in South Africa to explain some of the issues surrounding next generation wireless in his part of the world. Fisseha worked for Ericsson in Europe and has collaborated with both Nokia and Huawei before taking on his current role. So he brings a unique, international perspective on our industry. In reading his article it struck me that 5G was in some danger of losing the next billion entirely because of a lack of affordable wireless access in its requirements. Maybe along with the three legs that 5G stands on (massive Machine Type Communication (MTC), enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB), and Ultra Reliable Communication (URC)) we need to add a fourth leg of ultra low cost broadband (ULCBB). This can be done without impacting the first three, perhaps at the expense of the timeframe of the standard. But are we too late to change the direction of the 5G super tanker?? Comments, as always, very welcome.

5G and the ever increasing demand for Affordable Broadband

Fisseha Mekuria, Chief Researcher, Wireless Computing & Networking, CSIR Meraka Institute

The recent activities to formulate a global standard for the 5th generation (5G) wireless network, services and co-existent capabilities should involve emerging and developing countries requirements for affordable broadband connectivity of rural communities. Africa and emerging economy countries have been a recipient of communications technologies, based on standards, use cases and modalities dictated by multinationals and mobile operators. The main criteria that were usually used is based on getting the techno-economics and “short-term” profit margins of their investment intact. The mobile revolution that brought text and voice messaging has served its purpose and now emerging African countries are looking into mobile and wireless broadband for all. The fact is that broadband connectivity is now closely linked to GDP growth and many urban and rural communities in Africa would benefit from a boost in affordable broadband internet connectivity. Affordable broadband internet connectivity will in turn result in improved (education, health, banking, agriculture,….) service sectors and attract investment for business and industrialization of the region [7]. However, it has been an elusive dream in Africa to get broadband coverage specifically for rural regions. During the IEEE Africon2015, conference, in Addis Ababa [9], the workshop on future wireless and broadband innovation, raised a question: “Will 5G solve the broadband conundrum in Africa and support developing economies struggle to partake in the knowledge economy?” For example, will 5G help developing countries  bring affordable transport network technologies inland communities  via the terrabyte/sec submarine cable  lying across the coastal areas of Africa? Why should emerging economies accept a meagre fraction (less than 20 %) of Africa’s population  connected to Broadband ? [6] There needs to be a concerted effort to steer the 5G network standards and development to address this crucial issue. Emerging-economy countries pressured by the demand to offer societal data services have already started experimenting with new network technologies to harness the availability of submarine cable data bandwidth to connect rural and under-served areas of their population. The South African National Research and Education Network (SANREN) [1], is one such collaborative project and publicly funded to connect educational institutes. Since its inception in 2005, it has connected several higher educational institutes in South Africa to the broadband internet by assigning links with bandwidths ranging from 500Mbit/s to 10 Gbits/s. [2]. Can 5G technologies co-exist and use these publicly-funded networks in a public-private partnership format to extend the reach of broadband to rural communities?  Another initiative described below is spectrum sharing network technologies that are in trial runs  in South Africa and elsewhere [3,5]. TV White Space (TVWS) networks are expected to provide the much needed affordable last-mile connectivity to sparsely populated rural communities far away from the high bandwidth fibre optic cables.

Several organizations including ITU, 3rd generation partnership program (3GPP) have been the organizations leading the development of new generation of mobile networks. The driver for a new generation of mobile cellular network development in the past, such as a new “XG” where X=1,2,..4,.. has been the availability of new spectrum bands and new radio communications interfaces that drastically improve the mobile network capacity. Following the network capacity improvements,  new services evolved with each generation from the voice and text based services of 2G (which is still the dominant service type in Africa) to the 4th generation (4G) of mobile internet connectivity, which in Africa is patchily available at high cost in mostly urban areas. To support mobile broadband services such as voice over IP (VoIP), social networking, and video streaming, rural communities have to purchase expensive data plans (eg. A 500MB data plan costs more than 4 days of wage in Africa, 2 days of wage in India) [8]. Due to the high cost of data and ever increasing demand for bandwidth in wireless broadband services, in particularly emerging markets, countries are testing affordable broadband network technologies, based on dynamic spectrum sharing. Telecom regulators such as (Independent Communications Authority of South Africa) ICASA & the Office of communications of UK, Ofcom and standards organizations such as IEEE Dyspan & ETSI, are working hard  to enable such a paradigm shift. This shift involves:  static to  dynamic allocation and sharing of spectrum to enable localized broadband innovation and affordable broadband for rural, broadband internet services. These spectrum sharing network projects have been supported by successful experimental TV White Space network test-beds, which effectively share TV-band spectrum and co-exist with TV broadcasting stations. The test-beds showed the viability of TVWS networks to connect several rural and sub-urban schools to affordable broadband internet [3,5]. The techno-economics, market potential and co-existence of TVWS networks is under investigation by several organizations including ITU, ETSI, IEEE, CSIR, Ofcom, the FCC and many more. These technologies, from the perspective of emerging economies, should be included as complementary and co-existing technologies to 5G. The resulting network generation can then be described as 5G+E where E stands for “Enhancement/Emerging Markets”, and will promote  the concerns and demands of affordable broadband connectivity by emerging markets. At the same time the new 5G+E generation service types (IoT,M2M,Smart-cities…) need to promote an eco-system of mobile operators, local service providers,  infrastructure suppliers and device manufacturers to buy-in to the concept and invest in the policies and enabling technologies that will make possible the new 5G+E services and affordable broadband internet connectivity for rural coverage.


[1] http://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Documents/facts/ICTFactsFigures2015.pdf

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SANReNhttp://www.sanren.ac.za/.

[3] ] http://www.tenet.ac.za/tvws 

[4] http://www.itu.int/en/ITU-R/study-groups/rsg5/rwp5d/imt-2020/Pages/default.aspx

[5] http://conference.csir.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Final-Draft-Fisseha-Mekuria-Conference-Spectrum.pdf

[6] https://www.itu.int/dms_pub/itu-r/oth/0c/06/R0C060000560010PDFE.pdf

[7]  http://www.w3.org/2008/10/MW4D_WS/papers/mekuria.pdf

[8] https://hbr.org/2015/12/can-your-mobile-customers-afford-to-watch-your-ads

[9] http://sites.ieee.org/africon2015/

Editor-in-Chief: Alan Gatherer (alan.gatherer@huawei.com)

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