The glitzy Mobile World Congress held last month in Barcelona, Spain, set the tone for the roll-out of 5G internet network, marking a new dawn in communication and the overall realm of innovation.
The new generation network, which experts describe as super-fast, is set to provide the launch pad for a wide range of innovations comprising Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), augmented reality, smart cities, among others.
The journey to the currently unfolding 5G has been long and slow in Africa where 2G and 3G are still being used widely, while most of the rest of the world has not only achieved almost full adoption of 4G, but is quickly putting in place the requisite infrastructure in readiness for the roll-out of 5G. Kenya, however, has been doing comparatively well in the adoption of 4G.
The “G” stands for generation, while the numeral identifies the generation of the network. For instance, 2G stands for second generation network. Modern networks such as that of Safaricom #ticker:SCOM currently support fourth generation (4G).
Each succeeding generation of network packs more capacity than its predecessor with 5G being described by techies as the watershed in technology advances thanks to its immense data capacity and unparalleled speed.
“These (generations) are standards for mobile networks, defining evolution of the networks from those that supported voice and SMS onl to those capable of carrying high speed data that supports present and future services,” says Thibaud Rerolle, Chief Technology Officer, Safaricom.
The internet evolution is not only meant to improve on data carrying capacity and speed but also to enhance quality of experience in an increasingly interconnected world.
“5G is the latest generation of cellular mobile communications. It succeeds the 4G, 3G and 2G systems. 5G performance targets high data rate, reduced latency, energy saving, cost reduction, higher system capacity, and massive device connectivity. It can also run on multiple frequency/bands and can get to speeds of 1GB per second,” explains John Barorot, Chief Technology Officer at Telkom Kenya.
Kenya has been at the forefront on the continent in embracing modern techs such as digital payments. The country has also been faster than many other countries in adoption of new networks such as the 4G, which are critical in staying ahead in innovation. In the Mobile Economy Report 2019 by tech firm GSMA, Kenya is named as one of the most improved countries in terms of technology infrastructure.
“Kenya’s improved score was due to performance on two enablers: infrastructure and affordability. The former was driven by improved network coverage, with 3G increasing from 67 percent in 2014 to 85 percent in 2017, and 4G reaching more than a third of the population,” reads the latest report.
Safaricom, which has the highest number of subscriptions, has a 96 percent reach on its 2G network while 3G is at 91 percent reach and 4G at 53 percent reach. Airtel last month increased its 4G footprint following as Sh1 billion investment in the growth of its 3G and 4G networks. Safaricom on its part has partnered with Chinese tech firm Huawei to unveil end-too-end 400G backbone network.
The network will enable Safaricom to support its growing internet needs and video streaming services for its home and mobile customers, giving the company more freedom with how it uses its network while supporting heavy usage by subscribers.
The industry is forecasting 5G to be commercialised in Kenya from 2020.
“The evolution of the different standards enables us to bring newer features and capabilities to our customers and also to deliver connectivity with improved efficiency,” says Mr Rerolle.
According to Mr Barorot, higher internet speeds mean increased volume, and more fundamentally, reduced cost of internet.
“For instance, data consumption per customer on our network grew four fold between September 2016 and September 2018 from 160megabytes per customer per month to 640MB. In the one year between September 2017 and September 2016, the average cost per MB on our network decreased by 36 percent,” says Mr Rerolle.
The world is, therefore, banking on the evolution of technology to make it cheaper and easier to communicate with increased support for an array of new devices — from wearables to the smart home — that are now internet-enabled .
Various tech firms have also ridden on each generation of network to create new products and services. For instance, says Mr Rerolle, the 2G standard was designed for voice calls and SMS, while the 3G standard added high speed data to replace the slower EDGE data network on 2G. 4G saw complete shift to digital networks as opposed to 2G and 3G networks which are analogue. What separates 4G from the preceding networks is the innovation known as VoLTE which stands for Voice over LTE. VoLTE enables 4G mobile networks to carry voice calls in data form, which is a shift from 2G and 3G networks which carry voice calls as an analogue signal.
Due to its advancement, VoLTE is a more efficient technology, and offers clearer calls, faster call set-up and allows for video calls.
Although the world is moving rapidly towards 5G, Africa has been relatively slow in adoption of these technological revolutions. This has been attributed to unavailability of network-ready devices, and the lack of customer willingness as well as general consumer awareness.
“The market is predominantly using 3G and 2G handsets. 4G handsets have started making inroads and we see a substantial growth in 4G H/S shipment this year onwards,” said an Airtel official.
Mr Barroom says the main challenge in the industry is the availability of 4G-enabled devices as well as network readiness.
Safaricom has been facing similar challenges in the uptake of 4G as its infrastructure is largely pegged on the adoption of upgraded smartphones.
“Typically, such devices for (4G) have been priced higher than 3G and 2G devices, though the price continues to fall as global uptake increases, allowing manufacturers to pass on economies of scale through lower prices,” says Mr Rerolle.
This despite the fact that the Mobile Economy Sub-Saharan Africa 2018 report shows that over the past seven years, Kenya has seen a decline in the average selling price of smartphones to Sh11,500 ($115) in 2018 from Sh21,100 ($211) in 2012.
Even with the lowered cost of these devices, consumers are still required to switch their simcards to those that support the latest network configurations.
“A customer with a 4G device and an old SIM card also needs to upgrade their SIM card to one that allows them to enjoy 4G services. Some customers may not be aware of the need to do so despite having a 4G device, hence are not able to enjoy the full capabilities offered by their device,” explains Mr Rerolle.
“The other limitation is the pace at which customers replace their smartphones since it is only at this point that they would consider switching to a 4G-enabled device.”
According to GSMA, Improving consumer readiness requires collaboration among all stakeholders to identify approaches to overcome the digital skills gaps.