An interesting question was posed to me during a panel discussion on 5G technology at CNBC Africa’s Future of Work summit in October. Panel moderator Dan Atkins mentioned Amara’s Law, a theory put forward by American futurist Roy Amara: “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” Atkins was curious to know if I felt this law applied to 5G, the fifth-generation tech standard for broadband networks.
5G has been on Africa’s radar since its roll out in South Africa last year, but we are still quite far from widespread adoption. In fact, Quartz Africa, citing a recent Ericsson Mobility Report, notes the slow pace of adoption, with 5G coverage accounting for less than 1% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s mobile phone connections. The tech is still seen as emerging on the continent, so while I don’t think we’ve overestimated the impact that 5G can have, society may have overestimated the timing of this impact. We need a little more patience. In the long-term, 5G’s importance for spearheading activities that drive Industry 4.0 have certainly been underestimated. One only needs to look at the opportunities that smartphones opened locally, which wouldn’t have been possible without 3G – the same principle applies for 5G, but at a much larger scale.
There are boundless opportunities waiting to be unlocked, especially for businesses and the economy. However, Quartz Africa points out how deploying 5G is a costly endeavour for telecommunications providers while the cost of 5G-enabled handsets is a barrier on the consumer side. As such, the priority for both public- and private-sector players must be removing these barriers to 5G rollout and adoption so that we can unlock its value sooner.
In the enterprise and industry context, the value of 5G is clear for those in the process of a digital transformation; a process that necessitates a holistic overview of operations. As such, connected, end-to-end tech solutions that digitise and automate processes, improve production, streamline collaboration, and centralise data will be key. Underpinning the success of such solutions? Robust, secure, reliable, and scalable network connectivity. This is what 5G offers.
I have no doubt that 5G will quickly become the gold standard at enterprise level, thanks to its low latency and high throughput with speeds up to 10 times faster than 4G. It stands to reason that, as businesses rely more heavily on automation and the Internet of Things (IoT) to transform daily operations, they will turn to 5G to enable this. The simple fact is that existing network infrastructures were never designed to support the real-time delivery of large volumes of mission-critical video and data that drive autonomous, digitised systems. Understanding this reality, Vodacom Business took a proactive approach, creating a 4G LTE/5G-enabled Mobile Private Network (MPN) that provides the lower latency and higher quality of service needed for future-thinking companies to leverage next-gen digitisation.
The MPN is an attractive application of 5G technology in that it’s a dedicated, bespoke business network that enables new applications, while supporting companies’ existing business-critical services with secure, scalable, and “always-on” connectivity. This local network overlay serves as an alternative to WIFI however, it differs from a public mobile network by providing private reserved coverage that is subject to agreed performance and local, protected data flow. To summarise, my colleague Chris Allen described it best as a “mini-5G network built to cover a specific location, where it’s able to deliver better service with more control and security.” When combined with edge computing, MPN can support immediate responses and decision-making in ground-breaking ways.
There are boundless cross-industry use cases for 5G technologies such as the MPN, from in sensor-data tracking to video surveillance and analytics. Another interesting application that has seen incredible innovation across the globe is real-time control of autonomous guided vehicles, drones, and robots. Announced on 26 October, Chinese start-up QCraft has just deployed the country’s first 5G-enabled autonomous bus in the city of Wuxi, to bolster its ride-hailing fleet of smart, unmanned vehicles. The company explained how fast 5G networks allow the “driverless bus to receive information regarding traffic and road conditions in real time.” Mann, another innovative start-up, based in Ireland, partnered with a telco to put autonomous 5G-driven drones to use in faster, greener food delivery from restaurants to local customers within three minutes of collection. Expert remote assistance during surgery is another area tackled, with 5G-run augmented-reality tech powered by Spanish telco Telefónica used to connect a surgeon in Japan, in real-time, to a doctor performing surgery in Málaga.
These examples show how 5G can scale innovation from pockets of deployment to company-wide operations. There is world of opportunity that 5G brings if we leverage partnerships to speed up network rollout to drive business success in exciting, new ways.