By Lux Maharaj. Director Sales – Africa, Parallel Wireless
It is heartening to see that the African service providers have started to explore the 5G services. Telcos like MTN and Vodacom have already initiated the tests and trials for the upcoming 5G technology.
Even so, we cannot escape the fact that Africa continues to remain one of the most under-penetrated regions in the world with even the primary 2G network yet to reach over 110 mn people, as per GSMA report. Nearly 60% of the users in Africa are still on the 2G network. The GSMA report further predicts that only 3% of the users would be using the 5G network by 2025. The service providers face a dilemma of whether to expand the essential services to include more and more people on the network or to start preparing the network for the 5G services.
Fortunately, 5G can enable the continent in taking a giant leap towards the future. The 5G is not just about better speed but is also provides a massive opportunity to the developing regions, like Africa, to go beyond the problem of lack of infrastructure. It allows the concerned authorities to provide services, including e-learning and e-health, through digital platforms, which is more cost effective.
Low Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) coupled with the perceived high cost of the smartphones means that the market is currently not ready for 5G services. So, essentially the service providers need to cater to the current demands of their subscribers even as they prepare the networks for 5G.
The 5G technology will enable many innovative use cases, including remote surgery, autonomous driving, virtual reality, augmented reality and will be connecting billions and billions of things and so requires a network that is agile, flexible and easily scalable. The present-day networks are not designed for these capabilities.
The service providers will need to make some fundamental changes to their networks in their journey towards 5G. Network slicing, network densification and most importantly, virtualization are new approaches which are going to play a crucial role in 5G networks.
Network densification essentially means adding more cell sites, macro sites, and small cells to enhance the capacity of the network. On the other hand, network slicing allows the service provider to divide the network into different slices where each part works as a separate virtualized network. It enables the service provider to provide customized services without adding to their cost.
Virtualization to the rescue
The concept of virtualization can help the African service providers in addressing these concerns. It allows them to cost-effectively expand the coverage and address the digital divide even as they modernize the networks for the future.
Virtualization essentially uses software-driven systems to bring down the usage of cost-intensive hardware. It also consumes less energy and space, and it is also easier to upgrade the network. A virtualized network allows the African service providers to expand the existing 2G network, which currently caters to the majority of users and also makes it easier for them to upgrade for the deployment of 3G/4G/5G or rather any `G,’ whenever the market is ready.
It is a win-win situation because it also brings down the cost of deployment and maintenance of the network. The self-optimizing and self-organizing capabilities further make it easier for the telcos to use this technology. Essentially it allows them to react to the demands of the market without significantly increasing their capex.
The Open RAN Advantage
Virtualized 2G is part of Facebook-led Open RAN Telecom Infra Project (TIP) initiative to promote innovation and open ecosystem in the telecom equipment space. Major operators like Telefonica and Vodafone have deployed it, and MTN also plans to use equipment based on TIP specifications, which is more cost effective, making it easier for the company to expand in rural areas.
The Open RAN initiative was started to reduce the cost of Radio Access Network (RAN) by disaggregating hardware and software elements. It further encourages the use of white box equipment to reduce the cost of network deployment. Open RAN initiative is designed to help the service providers to bring down the expense of setting up a network which in turn will help in bridging the digital divide.
Easy access to mobile broadband services is proven to improve the overall social and economic growth in the region. The 5G technology will further enable Africa to expand the communication services in yet to be connected areas. Also, it will help the administration in providing access to infrastructure. Virtualized 2G makes it easier for the telcos to address the present-day challenges even they prepare the networks for the new and exciting services enabled by 5G. Most importantly, it empowers them to upgrade the network only when they believe that their subscribers are ready.