BusinessDay

Does Nigeria need a 5G plan?

Nigeria plans to rollout 5G mobile technology but there is no plan in sight; the NCC, the regulatory body, lately announced that the technology will be available from 2020. An announcement is utterly unsatisfactory.

More Nigerians now have access to mobile broadband. It didn’t happen without a plan. The Nigerian National Broadband Plan, launched in 2013, was a five-year plan to rollout 3G and 4G mobile technologies. Both were seen as the perfect pivot with which to deliver high speed broadband quickly and cheaply to as many as 80% of the population.

As at September 2018, almost half of the 97.5 million unique mobile subscribers in Nigeria had mobile internet service, according to a 2018 GSMA report. Today, the 2019 Jumia Mobile Report says, just 44 per cent of mobile subscribers use 3G, while 4 per cent use 4G, way behind other African countries. Still, Nigeria is the only African country that will contribute new mobile subscribers to the 700m expected by 2025 (about 7m every year). The rollout of 5G will, for example, make it possible for cars, phones and fridges to connect faster and seamlessly than currently possible to a network. It will usher the Internet of Things (IoT).

For a technology that will define the economics and national security of the 21st century, an announcement shows how prepared Nigeria is to fail. For a technology estimated to become a $123 billion market in six years, an announcement shows we don’t appreciate the scale of its impact. For a technology at the heart of what commentators call a technology Cold War between the US and China, an announcement shows our lack of strategic thinking and poor knowledge of geopolitics.

China, on the other hand, knows these things and long planned to be the global leader in the technology. Early on, it described 5G as a “strategic emerging industry” and “new area of growth”. China is aware that whoever makes the wireless technology of tomorrow will control the future – just as the US developed 4G technology which gave rise to tech giants like Netflix.

Huawei, as the largest supplier of networking equipment and second-largest smartphone maker, is in pole position in the race to 5G. It makes equipment that will allow devices to connect at high speeds. China plans to generate 8 million Chinese jobs from 5G by 2030.

Implementing a broadband plan requires the long-term-commitment of government agencies and the private sector, as shown in the China example. An update of the Nigerian National Broadband Plan would be a good start. Its goal: to make mobile technology available across the country as a tool for learning, improving the economy, and generating jobs remains valid.

A new plan will build on identifying broadband technology as “essential infrastructure of the 21st century” comparable to what electricity was for the Industrial Age. The updated plan will review the previous target of a five-fold increase in internet and broadband penetration through the rollout of 3G networks.

It must be more specific about how broadband access facilitates development of local content. For example, the availability of 3G contributed to the success of online marketplaces like Jumia which has 4 million customers in Nigeria, its largest market. Jumia has helped Nigerian businesses selling food or clothing items breach the dreadful logistics barrier of reaching customers around the country.

Finally, it must assess the risks and opportunities of the fight between the US and China over the ascent of Huawei as the leading 5G tech supplier. Will the US ban of Huawei bring about an alternative to Android by Google for smartphones? Asian mobile phone brands such as Huawei are increasingly popular in Nigeria. Are we ready to develop apps for health, education, agriculture and technology for this new platform?

The previous plan saw fast, reliable and affordable internet as “a fundamental requirement” for Nigeria to become a leading economy in 2020; it still is but not in a year. Without an updated national broadband strategy the date and goal have to be postponed.

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