5G opportunities and deployment disparities

The uneven deployment of 5G around the world was one of the issues discussed by panellists in the Ministerial Programme’s “State of the Industry” session, which was moderated by the GSMA’s Daniel Pataki and featured Eng. Irene Kaggwa Sewankambo (Executive Director and Director Engineering and Communications Infrastructure, Uganda Communication Commission), Joakim Reiter (Chief External and Corporate Affairs Officer, Vodafone), Karim Antonio Lesina (EVP, Chief External Affairs Officer, Millicom) and David Carmona (General Manager, Artificial Intelligence & Innovation, Microsoft).

Mr Reiter suggested that “the great [digital] transformation could become the great redistribution,” but only if connectivity extends equally across the regions of the world. Network deployment has profound implications on where ‘poverty pockets’ will stay or arise. In South Korea, over 90% of 5G has been deployed. China is ten years ahead of Europe. Africa and Latin America are ‘laggards’ in 5G, with much of the investment focus still on extending 4G coverage.

Reiter offered three enablers for countries lagging in 5G adoption. First, a comprehensive transformational plan for 5G is essential, backed by the President or Prime Minister. Political will is of paramount importance for success in this area. Solid political leadership combined with the expertise of specialised agencies must deliver a unified strategy supported by a central digital team. A roadmap for implementation with key milestones is essential for tracking progress, as this is a long-term investment into a programme that needs to stand the test of time.

Second, 5G capabilities must be leveraged to accelerate digitalisation in leading industries, such as manufacturing, agriculture, transport and urban planning, to drive productivity growth. This will require partnering with mobile operators and technology vendors to develop core Industry 4.0 technologies while developing standards and industry applications to facilitate global innovation. Finally, an honest assessment of the causes of slow digital development must be considered, leading to practical measures suited to local conditions.

According to Ms Kaggwa Sewankambo, digital transformation is an opportunity for Africa to leapfrog, not just in terms of telecommunications access but also in using mobile connectivity as an enabler to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, this opportunity is hindered by several factors, such as coverage and affordability: “Uganda has 29 million mobile subscribers, but only 9 million have smartphones.” We need to make smart devices more affordable, so more people benefit from mobile internet, she said.

Mr Lesina added that to address the digital divide, the most important thing is the availability and cost of spectrum and technology deployment. Policymakers must incentivise network deployment by adjusting regulation to stimulate investment. Such measures include, for example, applying harmonised radiofrequency exposure limits according to international guidelines, streamlining planning permissions, ensuring sufficient spectrum availability and issuing long-term licences – of 20-25 years.

None of the great promises of 5G would be possible without solid partnerships and ecosystems, as pointed out by Mr Carmona. He touched on another revolution happening in parallel with 5G — artificial intelligence (AI). With an increasing number of applications and use cases, AI is coming of age. The next step for AI is to become more accessible to more companies — a concept he called “augmented intelligence.” 5G and edge cloud will be critical to bringing AI to more users. To enable this, cloud providers and mobile operators should work together as equal partners in an ecosystem model.

There was a consensus among the speakers that public-private partnerships and cooperation with industry, civil society and academia are imperative for the success of any digital transformation journey. The private sector needs to provide technological solutions and know-how, while the public sector requires strong decision making, a financial backbone and resilience to push through reforms.

As the discussion drew to an end, it became apparent that equitable access to connectivity remains a critical issue, with massive implications for economies, societies and communities everywhere. It is important that 5G does not become the source of a new digital divide, rather, that governments and industries face the barriers and work collaboratively to ensure everyone can realise the benefit of digital technologies and connectivity wherever they live.

See more highlights from the Ministerial Programme here.