Does Nigeria Really Need 5G Now

The International Telecommunications Union-Radio communications sector (ITU-R) has defined three main uses for 5G. They are Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB), Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC), and Massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC).

Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) uses 5G as a progression from 4G LTE mobile broadband services, with faster connections, higher throughput, and more capacity.

Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communications (URLLC) refer to using the network for mission critical applications that requires uninterrupted and robust data exchange. Massive Machine-Type Communications (mMTC) would be used to connect to a large number of low power, low cost devices, which have high scalability and increased battery lifetime, in a wide area. Neither URLLC nor mMTC are expected to be deployed widely before 2021.

1G was analog cellular. 2G technologies, such as CDMA, GSM, and TDMA, were the first generation of digital cellular technologies. 3G technologies, such as EVDO, HSPA, and UMTS, brought speeds from 200kbps to a few megabits per second.

4G technologies, such as WiMAX and LTE, were the next incompatible leap forward, and they are now scaling up to hundreds of megabits and even gigabit-level speeds.

5G brings three new aspects to the table: greater speed (to move more data), lower latency (to be more responsive), and the ability to connect a lot more devices at once (for sensors and smart devices).

In summary, the three key benefits of 5G networks are: Much higher data rates (1-20 Gbit/s), enabling consumers to download content more quickly; much lower latency (1 ms), allowing users to experience less delay/lag when requesting data from the network, that is practically no buffering — a latency of milliseconds, imperceptible to humans.


Increased capacity as the network expands

If we’ve learned nothing from our extended stays at home for the last few months, it is that a good, high-speed connection to the internet is critical. Whether for work, school, entertainment or information, broadband internet has arguably become an essential utility that everyone in Nigeria should have an affordable right to access.

The Global System for Mobile communication Association (GSMA) Intelligence tipped 5G to be the first generation of mobile technology to have a bigger initial impact on the enterprise segment than consumer, though work must be done to convince businesses of the benefits.

In its Global Mobile Trends 2020 report published in November 2019, the research noted companies spanning manufacturing, power generation and aerospace among others are already evaluating options for employing 5G, including its potential to digitise assembly lines and operations management.

5G is an investment for the next decade, and in previous mobile transitions, we’ve seen most of the big changes happening years after the first announcement. Take 4G, for instance, the first 4G phones in the US appeared in 2010. But the sorts of 4G applications that changed our world didn’t appear until later. Snapchat came in 2012, and Uber became widespread in 2013. Video calls over LTE networks also became widespread in the US around 2013.

So following that plan, while most countries are getting a little bit of 5G right now, one expects the big 5G applications to crop up in ready countries around 2021 or 2022. Until then, things are going to be confusing as wireless carriers jostle for customers and mindshare.


The Nigeria Position

Today, Nigeria still stands on the threshold of the third generation (3G) with about 75 per cent of its network coverage on 3G (ITU). 4G is just picking up the pace in Nigeria with attendant hiccups. It is expected that by 2023, 4G technology in Nigeria will take over the market, leaving 3G to a close second place.

Factors that have delayed or slowed down the pace of 4G deployment in Nigeria include the prevalence of feature phones and smart phones with 2G and 3G capabilities and economic factors that tend to restrict tech companies from upgrading their technologies.

According to the GSMA, the relatively scarce mobile broadband spectrum in the sub-Sahara Africa region has necessitated operators to opt to reform the 900MHz spectrum to offer mobile broadband services over 3G, rather than waiting for new spectrum auctions to build 4G LTE networks.

Jumia Mobile Report also claimed that 54 per cent of mobile subscribers in Nigeria are using 3G while only four per cent are using 4G technology.

While Nigeria is still grappling with getting it right with 4G, some other countries are already utilizing the Fifth Generation (5G) advantage.

President and CEO of Ericsson, Börje Ekholm, had at a conference predicted that there will be one billion 5G devices on the global market by 2023, and they could likely shift how we interact with our connected devices.

5G has been designed to be the industrial internet, with remote control of machinery and maintenance with augmented reality (AR) as two prime examples. “At the same time, the consumer will see this too, for instance, in healthcare and autonomous vehicles where low latency will be a critical factor,” President and CEO of the Ericsson Group, Börje Ekholm said.

Speaking to what seems to be the Nigerian situation report, Ekholm addressed the need for the right regulatory regime, emphasizing deregulation and easier site permitting processes, which will allow for the rapid build-out of sites necessary for 5G.

“It’s important for governments to see networks as critical natural resources,” he said. “100 years ago, we built out railways and roads. The future roads are digital highways.”

According to the Chief Executive Officer of Medallion Communications, an Interconnect and Data Centre Company, Mr. Ikechukwu Nnamani, although some telecom operators offer 4G services, some others bank on the consumer’s ignorance of the technicalities of 4G operations to defraud the consumers, claiming 4G offering, but providing 3G services.

While operators are jostling to be branded 4G providers in Nigeria, and are finding it increasingly difficult to substantiate the claim based on the unparalleled quality of service the consumers are receiving, some other countries are beginning to look beyond 5G, with proofs in quality of service.

These are countries where Internet of Things, Robotics, Smart cities and Smart homes are ready visible proofs of technology behind the drive.

Before Nigeria can join the 5G train, there should be proper conviction that it is a needed technology and that 4G is no longer sufficient for the technology needs in the country. Removing the engine of a Toyota Camry and replacing it with the engine of a Bugatti will only ground the car rather than power it to efficiency.

Therefore, before Nigeria can efficiently deploy 5G technology into its processes, services and products, there is a dire need for infrastructure upgrade and policy realignment. Also, the consuming public should be ready to apply it, both for corporates and individuals. Nigerian hospitals, manufacturing sector, airports, seaports, railways, banks, extractive industry and others will have to be positioned to use the technology effectively.

It is presumed that the needs in Nigeria for now can easily be filled by the current 3G or 4G deployment.

Most of the real-5G demos seen in Nigeria, just involved people downloading Netflix very quickly on their phones. That kind of usage is just table stakes, just to get the networks built so more interesting applications can develop in the future.

Some top ideas at a recent global technology event included a game streaming service; a way to do stroke rehab through Virtual Reality (VR); smart bandages that track a patient’s healing; and a way for parents to interact with babies who are stuck in incubators.

Others include high-resolution wireless surveillance cameras, game streaming, and virtual reality physical therapy. All of these ideas need high bandwidth, low latency, or low-power-low-cost aspects of 5G. But these are the basic needs for 5G technology which Nigeria is not envisaging as yet.

5G will be most important for industrial uses, like automating seaports and industrial robots, driverless cars, among others.


Addressing Local Concerns and Moving On

After series of disturbing global arguments on the health implication elicited a response from the National Frequency Management Council (NFMC) and Nigeria’s Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami who disclosed that the NFMC has not deliberated on releasing any bulk frequency spectrum for the deployment of 5G, nor has the nation’s telecom regulatory body, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) been mandated to do same.

This statement was to put paid to the agitation by Nigerians to dismantle all infrastructure relating to the adoption of 5G technology in Nigeria.

Dr. Pantami noted that the NFMC has not deliberated on, or released any bulk frequency spectrum for the deployment of 5G; that no license has been issued for the deployment of 5G in the country; and that a 3-month study trial commenced on November 25, 2019 in order to critically review and study the health and security implications of deploying 5G in Nigeria;.

Furthermore, as part of the study trial process, the Minister directed the NCC to ensure that a team of experts, security agencies and other stakeholders fully participate in the trial process and the Minister’s office also invited these agencies to participate in the trial; and the trial process has been concluded and the study and reporting process is currently ongoing.

Dr. Pantami assured that the federal government will not act on the speculations only, but rather will take an informed decision on 5G after due consultation with experts and the public. He further reassured that government will always take the welfare, health and security of the public into account while considering the deployment of any technology.

It will be recalled that the NCC, in January 2020, concluded a test run for 5G technology in partnership with selected Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and Mobile Network Operator, MTN Nigeria.

But it should also be noted that mobile carriers cannot launch full 5G services until the communications regulator holds a spectrum auction to sell the rights to transmit over specific frequencies.

MTN Nigeria’s trial was spearheaded by the NCC. But this does not mean that they have been granted the spectrum to operate 5G in Nigeria. The infrastructure, which was used under a 4G band for the trial was dismantled immediately after.

The NFMC clarification is expected to put paid to the argument over social media platforms on the speculative operation of 5G services in Nigeria.

However, the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy and the Nigerian Communications Commission has started the inquest process on 5G, asking for inputs as they commence the development of a policy for the deployment of 5G in Nigeria.

In continuation of the process of policy development around 5G, the NCC had called for a stakeholders review and consultation to generate input into implementation plans of the commission.

The Consultative Document is currently being developed and will be shared with these stakeholders and the general public, following which a Stakeholder Consultative Forum will be held.

The notice from the NCC further stated that the process is part of NCC’s mandate as enshrined in Section 4(q) of the Nigerian Communications Act 2003 (the NCA), which grants it powers to prepare and implement programmes and plans that promote and ensure the development of the communications industry and the provision of communications services in Nigeria.

“Further to this mandate, the Commission considered that the deployment of Fifth Generation (5G) Technology will be beneficial for socio-economic development of Nigeria. The technology is an advancement of existing mobile technologies (2G – 4G) with enhanced capabilities providing new and enhanced mobile communications services.

“Such enhancements include applications like Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Robotics, Drones, Advanced Communication Systems, Cloud, 3D Printing, Mixed Reality, Simulation / Imaging, Gamification.

“These will bring improvements in Manufacturing, Transportation, Public Services, Health and Social Works, Agriculture, Energy, Logistics, Media and Entertainment, Mining and Quarrying, Machinery and Equipment, Automotive, Education, Information and Communication, Urban Infrastructure, Consumer experience, Sports, Semiconductor Technologies etc.,” the Commission explained.

While noting the advantages derivable from the deployment of 5G technologies, the NCC said it will consequently promote the National Digital Economy for a Digital Nigeria that will improve the way Nigerians live and work.

“5G has been deployed commercially and in use in some countries. As with the previous technologies, the International Commission for Non-ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) has classified radiation from 5G as non-ionizing and therefore, safe for human beings.”


The Concerns

With the global debate on the health implication of the 5G technology, and the purported cabling of 5G fibre optic infrastructure in Nigeria, there became a heightened sense of unease in the country.

5G technologies are expected to support applications such as smart homes and buildings, smart cities, 3D video, work and play in the cloud, remote medical services, virtual and augmented reality, and massive machine-to-machine communications for industry automation. 3G and 4G networks currently face challenges in supporting these services.

This discuss had prompted a document from the WHO on alleged health risks from 5G, the WHO stated that “to date, and after much research performed, no adverse health effect has been causally linked with exposure to wireless technologies.”

However, WHO is further conducting a health risk assessment from exposure to radio frequencies, covering the entire radiofrequency range, including 5G, to be published by 2022. WHO will review scientific evidence related to potential health risks from 5G exposure as the new technology is deployed and as more public health-related data become available.

The international health organisation established the International Electromagnetic Fields (EMF) Project in 1996. The project investigates the health impact of exposure to electric and magnetic fields in the frequency range 0-300 GHz and advises national authorities on EMF radiation protection.

On exposure levels, the WHO further establishes that currently, exposure from 5G infrastructures at around 3.5 GHz is similar to that from existing mobile phone base stations.

A spokeswoman for the telecoms trade body GSMA had said that the new limits showed the safety of current and future technology. “Importantly, the health risk assessment is unchanged. The review found no established health risks to anyone, including children, using mobile phones or living near base stations,” she said.

Also, shedding more light on the issue, an independent international standards body, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), which was set up in 1992 to assess the impact of electromagnetic and acoustic waves on people and the environment, said its current guidelines are mostly appropriate for the 5G era.

Medical health specialists have also lent their voices to the issue. Condemning the theories as “the worst kind of fake news”, National Medical Director of NHS England, Professor Steve Powis said, “I’m absolutely outraged, absolutely disgusted, that people would be taking action against the very infrastructure that we need to respond to this health emergency.”

Professor of Paediatrics at the University of Bristol, Professor Adam Finn, in his position said: “The internet connections these networks give us are one of the most important tools we are using to co-ordinate our response to the epidemic and efforts to do research to overcome it.”

With the seemingly successful trial of 5G mobile in Nigeria in November 2019, the government and operators are optimistic that when launched, the technology will leapfrog the country into the high-speed internet age.

However, the hype over the speed may be quite irrelevant if the technology is not used to facilitate other important innovations across the economy, such as telemedicine, education, digitalised air and sea services, automate industries among others.

A report on 5G in Africa by GSMA, a global trade organization for mobile operators, estimates that only seven African countries, including South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya, will be running 5G by 2025. However, the raging controversy over the health implications of the technology seems to be a drawback to this goal.

Analysts say some of the challenges in deployment of 5G in Nigeria may stem from Security, Consumer adoption, Infrastructure deficit, Return on Investment (RoI), and Regulatory challenges.

African governments, including Nigeria, haven’t yet developed the regulations that would allow for a 5G rollout.

Mobile carriers on the continent can’t launch full 5G services until each country’s communications regulator holds a spectrum auction to sell the rights to transmit over specific frequencies. MTN Nigeria’s trial was spearheaded by the NCC. Rain in South Africa can only provide 5G because it is using its existing spectrum to transmit the signal.

Mobile operators also need to build the vast network of masts or antennas to transmit the signals.

For carriers, rolling out 5G services entails expensive investment; and in the Nigerian context, they are not sure it is worth it yet.

In addition, mobile operators face huge infrastructure costs which they are not sure of how to recoup, especially since the awareness has not been widely created, nor consumers buying into it yet.

The Chairman, Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria, Engr. Gbenga Adebayo, acknowledged the numerous benefits of the advanced technology but identified poor infrastructure as a major obstacle.

He pointed out that the existing infrastructure might not be able to support 5G network as it had not given the 2G, 3G, and 4G connections enough stability and national coverage.

“What worries me about our local environment is the sustainability of what we have, on which the 5G will ride as it were. If our current evolution of 2G, 3G and 4G are not resilient or stable, it will be very difficult to have something solid with 5G. That is why we have a lot of work to do,” the ALTON chairman said.

Also, as Techpoint’s Muyiwa Matuluko puts it, “the challenge in Africa is the consumer.”

The continent already has an oversupply of 4G fast mobile internet that average consumers aren’t buying because it’s too expensive.

In Nigeria, for example, only about 4 per cent of mobile internet users pay for 4G services while more than 40 per cent use the cheaper, but slower 3G internet even though Nigeria has a growing 4G network. It’s the same story over most of Africa.

For Lagos-based ICT consultant, Mr. Jide Awe, that’s where government needs to step in. “5G is going to require huge infrastructure investment. How are you going to attract that kind of investment and make sure that you protect people who are investing?”

Awe pointed out, “Governments need to show the political will that they are behind it.”

The need to accord telecom infrastructure the status of Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) will further become most necessary due to the sensitivity of the infrastructure and services 5G will bring to the fore. Here, security becomes an issue. Although in Nigeria, this status has received a nod in principle, there is a need to buttress it with relevant policies and implement the provisions to the core.

Furthermore, the increased capacity and data rates promised by 5G require more spectrum and vastly more spectrally efficient technologies, beyond what is currently used in 3G and 4G systems.

Some of this additional spectrum will come from frequency bands above 24 GHz, which pose considerable challenges. The first challenge refers to the intrinsic propagation characteristics of millimeter waves.  These radio waves propagate over much shorter distances than those of medium- (between 1 – 6 GHz) and low- (below 1 GHz) frequency bands.

Hence, coverage of a given area will require a significantly increased number of base stations that will increase the complexity of the infrastructure, including the need to deploy radio equipment on street facilities, such as traffic lights, lampposts, utility poles and power supplies.

But the question on the lips of many is, won’t Nigeria, and Africa as a whole, miss the digital boom if it doesn’t embrace 5G?

But a quick answer is, not necessarily.

“The time lag before large-scale 5G deployment could have positive implications for the region,” according the recent GSMA study.

This means that the time lag could allow 5G technology to mature and be tested in other markets allowing Africa to avoid mistakes made elsewhere. And the continent could also benefit if the costs of devices and equipment fall, once countries around the world start launching 5G.

Nigeria, however, does not need to worry so much over early adoption of 5G technology. This is because, as predicted, each generation of technology stays relevant for up to 10 years before it starts fading.

Therefore, the country still have several years of building infrastructure, ensuring utilization, and putting the necessary compatible gadgets into the hands of Nigerians, before adopting 5G. This means that there is still time to explore the benefits or 4G technology, which will stimulate appetite for 5G technology.