5G: As Nigeria prepares for new tech frontier

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Ayo Olesin

As Nigeria prepares for the eventual rollout of Fifth Generation (5G) Digital Communication services, discussions about issues surrounding preparedness especially the regulatory, infrastructure and commercial frameworks are certain to gain more traction in the coming months.

Initially fraught with apprehension about potential impact on human health, 5G is increasingly being embraced as a key feature of the so-called Forth Industrial Revolution in which digital communications technology will take centre stage given it wide range of applications in areas such a manufacturing, transportation, health, environment among others.

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Global consulting firm, PriceWaterHouseCoopers in a White paper submitted to the World Economic Forum notes that the positive impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and its related emerging technologies will be fully realized through the wide-scale deployment of 5G communication networks in combination with other connectivity solutions.
“The key functional drivers of 5G will unlock a broad range of opportunities, including the optimization of service delivery, decision-making and end-user experience,” it said.
How Nigeria is able to key into this opportunity will depend largely on full collaboration between the regulator, operators and the consuming public itself according to several studies on the subject.

What is clear is that the potential that 5G communications bring is obvious to the extent of being revolutionary in many aspects.

For example, an IHS merket study estimates that $13.2 trillion in global economic value will be made possible by 2035, generating 22.3 million jobs in the 5G global value chain alone. Nigeria cannot afford to lag behind here as some emerging market economies like Vietnam are already closing the 5G deployment gap with significant consumer uptake.
However, the Nigerian Communications Commission has been doing its homework geared towards creating the enabling environment for a successful rollout starting with proposed timelines for spectrum and allocation.

NCC is proposing to conclude spectrum auction by the last quarter of this year, followed by spectrum assignment in the first quarter of 2022 and commercialization by the last quarter of 2022. NCC’s Executive Vice Chairman, Prof Umar Danbatta however pointed out recently that while the government will provide an enabling environment for 5G deployment, it is the mobile network operators that will determine their own deployment strategies, “subject to alignment with approved polices and other regulatory instruments in force.”
The NCC has also ticked an important box in revising the relevant commercial instruments – Annual Operating Levy Regulations (AOL) and the Frequency Spectrum (Fees and Pricing, etc.) Regulations – with inputs from industry stakeholders to the 5G rollout process.
Earlier in May, the NCC had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Nigerian Communications Satellite (NIGCOMSAT) X on the use of C-Band Spectrum for 5G services in Nigeria at an event in Abuja.

The imperative of eliminating unnecessary delays in the deployment of 5G networks has also required that studies be carried out on possible electromagnetic radiation and effects on human health by the NCC, in accordance with the International Commission on non-ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) Guidelines for general public exposure to time varying electromagnetic fields.

According to Danbatta, “The results of the test show that radiation from 5G infrastructure is far below the ICNIRP specification for protection of members of the public and therefore, suggest that no public health hazards are expected from the use of 5G in Nigeria.
“Scientific evidence from studies carried out by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Health Organisation (WHO), all show that exposure to radio frequencies are safe and does not cause or initiate the occurrence of cancers.”

Also speaking at a recent industry forum, the Chairman of the Board of Commissioners at the NCC, Professor Adeolu Akande, was upbeat about the prospects of the deployment of 5G in Nigeria and the potential benefits.

Noting that that 5G services have already been deployed in the United States and South Korea among many more countries in the world, he pointed out further that “telecommunication evolution from inception to date has led to improvement in user experience witnessed from 2G, 3G and later 4G. The global impact of 4G brought about increases in mobile usage and network performance.

For him, “5G will build on this momentum, bringing substantial network improvements, including higher connection speeds, mobility, and capacity, as well as low-latency capabilities”.

According to him, 5G does not only offer enhanced broadband and ultra-reliable latency communications but also provides massive machine-type communications where a lot of devices will seamlessly connect and independently interact with the internet without human intervention.

In more detailed terms, 5G rollout will improve the quality of digital connectivity by offering very high-speed mobile broadband or fixed wireless access to individuals in areas that are currently underserved by highspeed broadband Internet according to industry experts at the International Finance Corporation (IFC) Network operators can also benefit from increased revenue from value added service supported by 5G such as including virtual/augmented reality, online entertainment, and gaming, among others.

5G will also improving the efficiency of general infrastructure by enabling the optimization of transportation networks, and especially the automation of ports, tracking systems for transport companies, and optimization of long-haul and last-mile delivery absent formal addressing systems. 5G can also contribute to the optimization of waste management systems and power distribution networks through the use of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors as well as remote monitoring of decentralized power production centers in rural areas.
In the area of agriculture, experts say 5G will improve productivity by supporting the use of IoT sensors to track farms’ performance levels and predict production; enabling precision farming, especially in arid environments like the Sahel; or tracking cattle, a key asset in rural areas of emerging markets. Specific applications include remote inspection of fish farms and disease diagnoses of plants through the use of images captured by drones.
Similar impact will be felt in manufacturing with improved productivity in manufacturing through greater automation of the production process and large-scale use of augmented and virtual reality technologies.

Other benefits highlighted in the IMF note targeted at emerging markets policymakers are the expansion of telemedicine through remote diagnostics, especially for rural households, leveraging the capacity of 5G networks to handle high-volume data such as video and images as well as supporting large-scale rollouts of online education by enabling educational institutions, especially in the tertiary sector, to deliver online education in mobile-first settings, leveraging technologies such as augmented or virtual reality.
However, its not going to be a cake walk given the experiences of developed nations where 5G has been adopted and continues to grow as several challenges have been identified in scaling up to 5G on emerging market economies such as Nigeria.

Apart from the issues of spectrum availability, unlicensed spectrum and infrastructure sharing, there are concerns that 5G uptake could be slower in emerging markets due to inability to take advantage of sunk cost in existing 3G and 4G networks such as towers, penetration of IoT devices due to affordability among others.

MNOs will also have to consider how to maintain profitability since 5G will require new spectrum fees, base station, towers apart from energy costs. IFC studies indicate that in most emerging market countries average revenue per user is below $5 a month compared with $20 in developed economies even though 5G network require much more investments that the average 10 to 20 per cent of annual revenues which MNOs typically invest in network upgrades as 5G is more capital intensive and consumes more energy to run.
Regardless, the consensus on exponential value delivery, new opportunities and transformational changes that 5G bring makes the business case compelling. The feeling is that the transition might be slow but it will be steady as the benefits become clearer with specific user cases.
One thing that remains obvious as well is the primacy of the role of the industry regulator in driving this transition and the policy options available to it.

As outlined by IFC experts,” a revenue maximization approach to spectrum allocation could delay 5G availability by inflating the overall cost of network deployment”, while an early commitment on the expected timeline to release 5G spectrum, especially in the mid-band, can support investment in foundational digital infrastructure to prepare for 5G investment.

It is also being proposed that the telecom sector be made open to non-telco operators to enable the sharing of value from 5G connectivity among various stakeholders, and support competition and innovation and thereby enable the development of relevant use cases. “The opening of the sector could be supported by leveling the playing field between operators through interoperability between networks, especially between private and public 5G networks.

Regulators are also being advised to adjust telecom regulatory frameworks to the use cases enabled by 5G. Examples include regulations on small cells, heterogeneous networks, and IoT devices. Small cells and heterogeneous networks will be critical to providing low-latency applications, whereas IoT devices will support the deployment of massive machine-type communications services. Fixed wireless and wholesale open access networks that are upgradable for 5G can help mitigate the risks of a digital divide.

Whatever, decisions that will be reached, it is critical that multi-stakeholder input needs to be key defining factor. The NCC has already demonstrated its commitment to this principle time and again, the latest example being the operation levy and spectrum pricing determination process.

Lots of political will is also required on the executive side, while the MNOs having had considerable time to study developments in countries where 5G networks have been deployed coupled with their knowledge of the Nigerian market should be positioned to address some of the challenges so far identified and others peculiar to this environment as the process unfolds.

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