How 5G deployment will impact Nigeria’s digital economy

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By Ariemu Ogaga

The Federal Government recently approved the National Policy for Fifth Generation Network, otherwise known as 5G, for the Country. The 5G policy was approved by the Federal Executive Council (FEC) following a presentation by the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Prof Isa Pantami.

According to the government, the implementation of the National Policy will take immediate effect. What this means is that the National Frequency Management Council (NFMC) will soon release spectrum to the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC) for the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) that meet all the required conditions.

It should be noted that the planned deployment of the 5G had generated controversy in the country. While some observers believe that Nigeria was not ready for 5G roll out in terms of infrastructure, the NCC has insisted that there is enough broadband penetration to ensure its successful deployment. The argument that the 5G network poses health risk has also been said to be incorrect by replete literature. Consequently, with all now set for the roll out of the 5G network in Nigeria, stakeholders are of the opinion that it is indeed a revolution that has come to impact the Country’s digital economy.

Nigeria’s Telecom Industry  Advancement from 1G to 5G Network

It is imperative to systematically x-stray the beginning of Nigeria’s telecommunications sector. It was fully deregulated in 2001. Prior to this, Nigeria had approximately 450,000 telephone lines provided by the Nigerian Telecommunications Limited (NITEL),  and several private licensees operating networks with limited regional scope and services.

Wireless communication in Nigeria has also evolved over the years. From the analogue based technology of 1G (first generation) to the digital wireless systems of 2G (second generation), 3G (third generation) and 4G (fourth generation).

The 2G technology uses TDM (Time Division Multiplexing) whereas 3G and 4G make use of WCDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) and OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access) respectively.

The 4G is a technology designed to be all-IP and to support mobility much more than the previous technologies.

In comparison, the key features of 4G over all others before it, are network detection and selection as well as seamless handover and service continuity.

5G is a new global wireless standard after 1G, 2G, 3G, and 4G networks, which enables a new kind of network that is designed to connect virtually everyone and everything together, including machines, objects, and devices.

5G leverages on the successes of previous generations of mobile networks such as 2G, 3G and 4G mobile wireless networks and on the other hand proffer solutions to some of the shortcomings of 4G technology. Its key capabilities will be in areas such as spectrum efficiency, user experience data rate, latency, mobility, and connection density, among others.

Telecom experts have argued that Nigeria, like many other nations, has every reason to embrace the deployment of 5G technology.

The Policy, they said, is currently in operation in most European countries as well as some African countries, and as such, Nigeria must not be left behind.

It has been deployed in the US, in the UK, Switzerland, Germany, and many others. It has also been deployed in the Republic of Korea and China, including African countries, especially South Africa and Lesotho.

Experts have therefore, explained that the successful implementation of this technology will not only usher an array of improvements in internet connectivity in the country where broadband penetration is still low, but will provide an era of new and emerging technologies such as Internet-of-Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data to improve lives and standard of work.

For a fact, the NCC, which is the regulating body has a policy of maintaining neutrality in the choice of technology to be adopted by the various service providers but the Commission through its strategic plan has been responsible for the successful roll out of all these generations of networks even though observers are keenly watching on how the commission will handle the deployment of the 5G network.

Fears and Concerns over 5G Deployment

Already, some stakeholders have expressed fear on some challenges that may stall the successful deployment of the 5G network in Nigeria.

First, according to them is the issue of fibre penetration and power infrastructure gap that currently exists in the country.

The coverage of optic fibre cable in Nigeria, telecom experts said, is not encouraging especially in cities where 5G is expected to be initially deployed.

According to the NCC report released in 2018, metropolitan cities need over 120,000km of fibre networks for the country’s backhaul interconnectivity.

Unfortunately, only about 40 per cent of this requirement has been met leaving a deficit of 60 per cent. Also, the inconsistent power supply in the country is a major challenge as power is crucial in facilitating 5G deployment.

There is also a challenge of absence of devices. The deployment of 5G technology is determined by the availability of 5G devices which are presently very scarce due to some technical challenges. These design challenges include multiband support of upper and lower frequency bands.

There are also heating concerns as a result of power consumption needed to transmit in high frequency bands.

Moreover, health concerns despite assurance by experts that 5G does not have adverse effects on health might slow the deployment. The fear is rooted on the fact that the network will be made up of several radiating communication antennas located approximately 100m apart and capable of radiating high power electromagnetic waves.

Another challenge is the fear that deployment of 5G might make the network vulnerable, thus exposing users to new dimensions of attack.

Why the success or failure of 5G lies with NCC

The burden of success or otherwise of the 5G technology lies squarely on the Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC). Recall that following global trends in telecommunications development of 5G, the NCC in November 2019, embarked on a Proof of Concept (trial) with MTN in six locations using different equipment vendors for a period of three (3) months.

Relevant stakeholders including members of the security agencies were involved in the trial. The trial was conducted to enable the Commission to assess the performance of the technology in comparison with existing technologies, evaluate compliance to health and safety guidelines and also use the lessons learnt to guide policy towards commercial deployment.

The trial which was conducted on the 3.5 GHz and 26 GHz bands was successfully completed with performance showing improvement of 5G over the previous technologies with the radiation levels well below the specified human safety guidelines. The equipment used in the trials have long been decommissioned in all the locations.

Now with the commercial deployment of the technology set to begin, the NCC which is the regulating body has a policy of maintaining neutrality in the choice of technology to be adopted by the various service providers. In fact, the commission had already made it clear that telecoms subscribers in the country would not be forced to use the technologies.

Speaking recently on the readiness of NCC, Executive Vice Chairman of the commission, Prof. Umar Danbatta, said Nigeria could not be left behind, insisting that the commission was very ready for the deployment of the technology.

The NCC is requesting for additional spectrum to be allocated by the NFMC to facilitate adequate deployment.

“On the 5G, the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, has spoken about the Federal Government’s position to deploy as soon as possible. Our state of readiness is very high,” he said.

He added: “There’s an auction committee for 5G with a deployment plan ready. As you know, without a plan you cannot have a successful deployment. All we are asking is additional spectrum to be allocated by the NFMC. Of course, some of these spectrums are ready but we have to get the Federal Government’s approval to go ahead with the auctions.”

Danbatta’s fear, might have however been taken care of as the government had directed the National Frequency Management Council (NFMC) to release spectrum to the commission for the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) that meet all the required conditions.

One important thing that will aid in the easy deployment of the 5G by the NCC is the level of broadband penetration in the country. Recall that in recognition of the tremendous economic growth opportunities afforded by the deployment of broadband technologies, Nigeria established its first broadband plan in 2013 for a period of five years.

The plan set out to achieve broadband access, defined as minimum download speeds of 1.5Mbps with at least 30 per cent coverage, and an objective of achieving 3G coverage to at least 80 per cent of the population.

Though, the nation surpassed the 30 per cent target, the NCC boss himself admitted that given the current state of technology, development and applications of broadband technology, the 30 per cent penetration achievement lags the aspiration of the country as the developed world marches towards widespread deployment of 5G technologies, while the country is even yet to achieve significant 4G coverage and adoption.

It was in this vein that the 2020-2025 broadband plan was conceived. The Plan is designed to deliver data download speeds across Nigeria of a minimum 25Mbps in urban areas, and 10Mbps in rural areas, with effective coverage available to at least 90 per cent of the population by 2025 at a price not more than N390 per 1GB of data.

It is instructive to note that the plan is designed to have a 90 per cent 4G/5G coverage by 2025. One of the strategic plans by the NCC in achieving effective deployment of the 5G technology therefore is to build integrated infrastructure that is counterpart funding based, sustainable and resilient to close the gaps in addressing the broadband needs of the country. This is why the former President of Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Engr. Olusola Teniola hinted that the success of 5G is largely dependent on the 90% per cent implementation of 4G infrastructure.

According to Teniola, “we as a nation, on our journey, we are still playing catch up in terms of deployment of 4G. And if we achieve the penetration that we are intending to achieve with Fourth Generation(4G), which is 90% coverage by 2025, then you will see a multiplier effect on some of the applications that will be used across the 36 states, including the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).

In addition to this, is the creation of well-conceived policy and regulatory prescriptions which are fundamental to the optimal rollout and uptake of broadband services.

These policies, according to NCC, will attract investments by incumbent and aspiring service providers and ensure transparency in the regulatory process.

Also, a harmonized Right of Way (RoW) or Acquisition policies among other vices of multiple tax conundrum, an enabling environment for constructing and protecting broadband infrastructure, addressing the challenge of Foreign Exchange and digitisation of Government’s processes will greatly accelerate the rollout of broadband services which will in turn make the deployment of 5G easier.

Furthermore, another factor that will see to the successful deployment of the 5G technology are contributions made by mobile operators who are key stakeholders in the telecom industry.

It is a known fact that conspiracy theories about mobile phone technology have been circulating since the 1990s, and have long historical roots.

Therefore, ahead of planned deployment, the Federal Government, mobile network operators (MNOs) and the NCC have a responsibility to drive awareness on the benefits of the deployment of 5G.

This awareness should involve sensitisation of citizens through different forums such as  Industry Consumer Forum (ICAF) and sustainable partnership with the media.

It should also contain the Federal Government actively participating in regional and global engagements on the deployment of 5G to ensure that citizens stay abreast of developments.

How 5G will impact Nigeria’s digital economy

No doubt 4G network penetration is not nirvana, however there has been a significant landmark as Nigeria races to achieve its 90% per cent data penetration target by 2025. According to National Bureau of Statistics 2020 Fourth Quarter(Q4) data, the telecommunication sector contributed 12.25 per cent to the Country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Experts have noted that if Nigeria can consolidate on the gains achieved in the sector, an additional $300billion will be added to the Nation’s GDP by 2030.

The 2020 global edition of the GSMA’s flagship ‘Mobile Economy’ report had disclosed that mobile technologies and services generated 4.7 per cent of GDP globally in 2019, a contribution that amounted to $4.1 trillion of economic value-added.

This contribution is forecast to grow to $4.9 trillion (4.9 per cent of GDP) by 2024 as countries around the globe including Nigeria, increasingly benefit from the improvements in productivity and efficiency brought about by increased take-up of mobile services.

The mobile ecosystem also supported more than 30 million jobs in 2019 (directly and indirectly). It made a substantial contribution to the funding of the public sector, with $490 billion raised through general taxation.

5G is forecast to contribute $2.2 trillion to the global economy by 2034, with key industries such as manufacturing, utilities, and professional and financial services benefiting the most from the new technology.

In its list of benefits of 5G to the Nigeria economy, the NCC explained that the technology has the potential to provide 20X faster data speeds and carries a massive amount of data for a large number of simultaneous users.

According to the commission, users in high-density areas – like airports, stadiums or urban areas – can still experience the fast speeds and low latency of 5G service. Technology will revolutionise and transform people’s way of life. From education to agriculture, security to entertainment and governance in general.

In education, it is a fact that the availability of a fast wireless network will enable virtual learning. For teachers, 5G will empower them to re-imagine what is possible inside and outside their classrooms.

The ability to download high quality and feature-length documentaries in seconds, hosting a guest speaker via hologram or tutoring students virtually in real-time will speak to a 5G powered Nigeria.

“Artificial intelligence (AI) is set to revolutionise healthcare. 5G will make it easier to determine potential diagnosis and decide on the best treatment plan.

“By moving to 5G networks, healthcare organisations can use the AI tools they need to provide the best care possible – from wherever they are in the hospital or clinic.

“5G will support businesses innovative ambitions and create new markets, transforming supply chain management and creating smarter, more efficient manufacturing. It is also a fundamental platform for the Internet of Things (IoT) — the rapidly expanding number of devices that collect, transmit and share data via the internet,” NCC added.

Studies have shown that by the end of 2020, more than half of all new businesses will rely on the “IoT” to cut costs, build efficiencies, and grow their bottom lines.

However, many of the innovations 5G technology will fuel may not be available yet especially in Nigeria. For the “IoT” to realise its limitless potential, 5G is critical.

The technology will allow users to stream, download, and upload huge quantities of data at a much faster rate than we are currently able to. This means higher definition video either from TV or using video conferencing.

Additionally, 5G is designed to facilitate a wealth of new applications for wireless technologies. Driverless cars and drones will be able to safely and near-instantaneously send and receive information about their surroundings that will allow them to operate safely.

Conclusively, the outlined impacts of 5G will be a mere wishful thinking if the Federal Government through the NCC and Mobile Network Operators(MNOs) do not walk the talk on clear achievable policy direction.