Is Africa ready for 5G?

This was supposed to be my commentary for last Sunday but the Karongi district road-star stole the show. It has been a big week for me as I was helped to leave a day-job I’ve held for the last seven months, to focus, fulltime on a project I have toyed with since last year.

It is a project to try and put the fish back in the lake, where it belongs, after it was, some three years ago, led away on an adventure in the corporate public relations world; anyway, not to waft away from the focus of today’s commentary, that was to just give you a hint.

A fortnight ago, Kigali hosted the GSMA Mobile 360 Series, a platform that helps drive regional engagement on topics impacting the mobile industry on both localised and global scale; it gathered hundreds of senior telecom, banking and technology executives.

The GSMA is a trade body that represents the interests of mobile network operators worldwide and currently has in its membership, about 800 mobile operators as well as 300 companies in the broader mobile ecosystem considered as associate members.

I didn’t attend the conference but on its sidelines, I privately met with two executives that had travelled all the way from London and Hong Kong, respectively, to summit in Kigali.

Over lunch, I met with Emeka Obiodu, the Director of strategy at GSMA based in London. Since last year, Emeka has led the ‘5G Taskforce’ that saw him work with GSMA Board member companies and other industry stakeholders to develop 5G guidelines for operators.

But what is 5G? In a layman’s understanding, we are generally talking about internet and how faster it can go, from the current 4G speed; its promoters are hyping it as set to usher in ‘an era of boundless connectivity and intelligent automation.’

I found it quite interesting that an African is playing a lead role in the 5G global revolution, even when most parts of the continent are yet to get a taste of 2G or 3G with 4G largely still an emerging luxury for users. Is it too early for 5G? Or it’s Africa that’s running late?

Late or timely, the conversation on 5G is already here with us and mobile operators around the world are being prepared for this next generation wireless technology era in a series of regional GSMA Mobile 360 meetings including one that Kigali just hosted, a fortnight ago.

On Friday, technology commentator Scott Fulton wrote that: {5G} is a capital improvement project the size of the entire planet that aims to replace the current wireless architecture with another, aiming to lower energy consumption and maintenance costs.

But he added, “it (5G) is a huge gamble on the future of transmission technology that will double down on the consumers’ willingness to upgrade (from 4G to 5G).”

For most internet consumers in Africa, it is not yet a question of ‘willingness to upgrade or not’ but somewhat a challenge of ‘access and affordability’ so choice is still, largely a fantasy.

This is where Tim Metz from the Hong Kong based KaiOS technology, comes in.

I met Tim over coffee and he told me about their global mission to connect a billion users to the internet through their ‘Smart Feature Phone’ which costs less than US$25.

Built like the old Nokia type phone, the Smart Feature Phones come with an inbuilt operating system that enables connectivity to 3G internet as well as basic Smartphone apps such as WhatsApp, cameras, YouTube, Google search on top of texting and calling.

Since 2017, Tim’s KaiOS backed Smart feature Phone has helped give nearly 100million people their first mobile internet experience and the movement is growing like a wild-fire.

KaiOS is helping balance the conversation between deepening affordable access to internet and migration to 5G for those that already have access and can afford 4G-connectivity.

But it is also a question of strategic market leadership by Africa’s leading telecom companies; and this is where remarks by MTN Rwanda Chief Executive Bart Hofker, during the opening session of the GSMA Mobile 36o meeting in Kigali, comes into play.

“True leadership in digital transformation is not about being first in technology innovations (like 5G) but to include as many people as possible.  At MTN Group, we are fronting the CHASE-strategy to remove the barriers to being connected,” he said.

CHASE, he explained, stands for Coverage, Handsets, Affordability, Services and Education. I guess the telecom giant has allocated budget to create more awareness on this strategy, which I think, is more important to most Rwandans than the conversation on 5G, currently.

Tim’s KaiOS fits in well with MTN’s CHASE strategy. The two are already in partnership to popularise the Smart Feature Phone across the telecom giant’s footprint in Africa. In Rwanda, MTN Ikosora has already helped connect hundreds of thousands of Rwandans to internet.

CHASE, therefore, is the best vehicle for Africa to chase the rest of the world that is already racing towards 5G; catch-up is possible only if access and affordability gaps are fixed.

For instance, of MTN Rwanda’s 4.7million voice customers, only 1 million are active on Data. The 3.7million is not just a challenge but also a growth opportunity.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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