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5G launch brings opportunities, 4G remains critical

31st July 2020

By: Natasha Odendaal

Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

     

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As several telecommunications groups launch fifth-generation (5G) technology, highly attractive opportunities for South African consumers, carriers and the information and communication technology industry at large start to emerge.

South African mobile service providers, including MTN, Vodacom and rain, recently started deploying 5G technology on their networks, resulting in a significant increase in data services and an explosion of connected devices.

“The transformative impact of the technology will immediately begin to be felt across sectors, but, as the roll-out expands, it will start to fundamentally influence the way we live, work and interact,” says Huawei Carrier CTO Paul Scanlan.

Quicker responses and more precise communication without lags are provided by 5G, which will revolutionise communications that rely on fast linkages, such as gaming and the Internet of Things (IoT).

“Since 5G is such an incredible platform for transformation, once it is fully enabled, the benefits will increase by several orders of magnitude – for government, the economy and industrial development,” he comments.

It is in the interests of countries to facilitate the licensing and approval of 5G and the allocation of spectrum to 5G providers as soon as possible to reap the vast benefits of the latest-generation technology.

Currently, South Africa’s mobile operators have temporary access to the required high-demand spectrum to streamline communications during South Africa’s state of disaster amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is expected that the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa will possibly auction the spectrum by year-end.

The true benefit of 5G, however, is not in the selling of network licences, but in the economic enabling factor that 5G represents, he points out.

The productivity benefits would boost the economy and create new jobs in the information economy.

IoT will revolutionise the predictive maintenance of plant, machinery and equipment, with every piece of equipment constantly reporting its status and whether it requires maintenance, says Scanlan.

“This will bring massive savings for companies, as well as countries, as utilities such as energy, transport and water can be more effective and less costly to run.”

Further, new skill will be required, with rapid upskilling enabled by the use of three-dimensional (3D) modelling and virtual reality training.

“Where previously a tradesperson might have to go through four years of classroom training now he or she can receive training practically through remote learning [and] from industry experts anywhere in the world, and become qualified in a fraction of that time,” he explains.

The greater speeds delivered through 5G can also unlock remote monitoring activities, which will support a more precise management of agriculture, constant measurement of soil nutrients and satellite monitoring of fields to indicate when and how to apply fertiliser, adjuvants and pesticides for the best possible crop yields.

Mines can be managed remotely and operated using automated vehicles and machinery, which unlocks greater mechanisation, ensures fewer accidents between humans and machines and promotes greater efficiency.

“Another component of the Fourth Industrial Revolution likely to come into its own with the expansion of 5G connectivity is 3D printing, which will allow people to print out and create any specialised tool they might require in their choice of materials on site, at short notice.”

The 5G technology’s enhanced connectivity will also have a positive impact in the health and education sectors.

Doctors and specialists can practise remotely, undertaking more consultations, without patients even having to leave home, while surgeons can perform operations using remote robotics to connect with the most skilled professionals in the world.

He points out that 5G capabilities have already enhanced the prospects of finding a vaccine and treatments for Covid-19 through the gathering, processing and sharing of massive amounts of data worldwide.

“Where previously the research, testing approvals and distribution of vaccines might [have taken] a decade, now we might have a Covid-19 vaccine within a year,” says Scanlan.

“We are only able to do that because we can access and process information more quickly, thanks to greater connectivity.”

However, while much of the current hype in the telecommunications space focuses on the roll-out of 5G technology, fourth-generation (4G) or long-term evolution (LTE) remains the foundation underpinning the innovative digital initiatives supporting communities during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“During the pandemic, LTE was coming to the fore in the provision of telehealth and telemedicine, as well as expanding network services to hot spots to support the ill through hospitals and other healthcare services,” says Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA) head of the Network 2020 future network programme Henry Calvert.

Speaking at the recent 2020 GSMA LTE Summit, he noted that 4G networks will remain critical for the next five to seven years.

“Until 2025, LTE will continue to do the heavy lifting,” he says of the network technology used by 52% of the world’s mobile devices.

“Besides the significant role 4G plays in supporting health services, it also provides for the data and connectivity needs of the new life styles taking shape since lockdown.”

During the pandemic, data use increased by more than 70% per customer, driven by online services and consumption of on-demand video services like Netflix, which recently reported adding 15.8-million subscribers in a year – more than double expectations.

“There has even been a call to on-demand video providers to reduce the quality of video they are deploying and encourage people to use standard-definition rather than high-definition television to preserve the capacity in the networks for online education, online health and online businesses,” he adds.

In terms of supporting contact tracing, 4G networks have also been instrumental applications, providing free data to support the tracking.

The focus will remain on expanding critical 4G capacity; however, 5G transformation is going to be needed in the future to meet online demands.

Edited by Martin Zhuwakinyu
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

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