Nigeria’s 5G rollout to put policy, infrastructure deficit on spotlight
The Nigerian Federal Executive Council (FEC) last Wednesday gave its approval for National Policy on Fifth Generation (5G) Networks to drive the digital economy.
The approval supposedly puts Nigeria on course to roll out 5G networks across the country and could put it in the league of countries like South Africa and 80 other countries around the world already using the technology on a commercial scale.
However, the Nigerian government’s commitment to ensuring wild deployment of the technology faces critical tests in policy and the low investment in telecoms infrastructure. Regulatory policies in the telecoms sector have often done more harm than good, at least from the operators’ point of view.
According to the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, the National Policy on 5G has been two years in the making, largely because the government wanted to carry out extensive engagement and the need to ensure adequate public awareness and sensitisation.
There have been public concerns over the health and security implications of deploying 5G in Nigeria. The ministry said those concerns were largely based on conspiracy theories that were not backed by facts. But the rollout of 5G in other countries has shown that the biggest problem with 5G is not the so-called conspiracy theories. While the benefits far outclass that of the previous generation of networks, the challenge is in the actual deployment, which is costly, demands big investment, and a clear and consistent policy direction.
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5G technology offers networks that are 100 times faster than 4G, support 100 times more devices and feature five times lower latency compared with other generations.
2G technology, for instance, is a basic network that enables texting capabilities, whereas 3G allows mobile users to browse the internet at speeds previously only experienced with a desktop computer, and the 4G brought in a new economy of mobile applications.
Standard 4G (or 4G LTE) is around five to seven times faster than 3G, offering theoretical speeds of up to around 150Mbps. That equates to maximum potential speeds of around 80Mbps in the real world.
The 3G and 4G coverage in Nigeria are still very low. For example, 3G coverage as of 2020 was at 49.4 million, a decline compared with 50.4 million recorded in 2019. 4G coverage in Nigeria was at 36.5 million in 2020 from 21.7 million reported in 2019. The National Broadband Plan 2020 set an ambitious target for 3G coverage to at least 80 percent of the population by 2025. Less than 4 years to the timeline, coverage stands at about 50 percent while 4G is at 37 percent coverage.
The 5G technology, to be sure, comes with a unique architecture different from previous generations of wireless infrastructure. Importantly, the infrastructure transits from traditional large cell towers stretched over long distances to a network of smaller cells sited more closely together.
According to politico.com, to make that infrastructure change, a country like Nigeria will likely need an estimated close to a million new cell sites by 2025 to remain competitive in 5G.
Additionally, the new cells will have to be connected by a robust wire network.
5G antennas, while being able to handle more users and data, beam out over shorter distances. In that case, providing access to rural communities will be as much of a challenge as it has been with LTE. Even with antennas and base stations getting smaller in this scenario, more of them would likely have to be installed on buildings or homes, according to experts at futurithmic.com.
Cities will probably need to install extra repeaters to spread out the waves for extended range, while also maintaining consistent speeds in denser population areas, the experts said.
“There is no doubt that the operators are going to spend a lot of money to deploy 5G, and they will need to recoup their investments from the service. The only way the cost can be lowered for the subscriber is for the telecoms regulator to make the 5G spectrum cost as low as possible,” said Ikechukwu Nnamani, chairman, Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), at the Industry Consumer Advisory Forum (ICAF) Quarter Meeting and Open Forum 2021, with the theme: “Deployment of New Technology for Improved Consumer Experience, 5G Misconception and Conspiracy Theory.”
One of those costs, he highlighted, is spectrum for 5G. The transformative nature of 5G will largely be achieved in how radio frequency is allocated and employed.
In South Africa the spectrum allocated for the technology includes 700MHz, 800MHz, 2.6GHz, and 3.5GHz bands. The 3.5GHz is considered as key for 5G and reserve prices for lots in this band range starts at around $588,000, rising to about $4.5 million.
In order to reduce the cost barrier, the South African regulator ICASA had assigned temporary spectrum to Vodacom for the duration of the national state of disaster due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including one 50 megahertz channel in the 3.5GHz band, which was used to fast-track the carrier’s 6G launch.
Aside from spectrum, electricity is also a major barrier for 5G technology deployment in Nigeria. Due to the poor generation power capacity of the country, most telcos provide their own electricity, which comes at a huge cost.
The power consumption of 5G hardware is between two and four times greater than 4G, posing unprecedented challenges for site infrastructure construction. A report notes that cellular sites delivering 28Mbit/sec have an energy consumption of 1.35kW, leading to an EE of 20kbit/Joule. Recent papers report EE numbers in the order of 10Mbit/Joule in 5G systems.
Carriers cannot afford massive, new power costs and will not deploy technology they cannot afford to operate, noted Chris Bronk, assistant professor of Computer and Information Systems and associate director of the Centre for Information Security Research and Education at the University of Houston.
This and perhaps other added costs like fibre deployment is perhaps why Nnamani of ATCON made the point at the summit that 5G consumption may not be available to every category of Nigerians. While the NCC says the country is ready to get the technology up and running, the onus rests on whether investors are willing to ignore the massive risks and deploy sufficient capital to launch 5G in a market like Nigeria.