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5G Technology in Africa

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He recently penned an opinion article published in the August 2020 edition of Destiny Magazine.

We are on the cusp of a global wave of fifth-generation (5G) technology. In the last few months, 5G has gotten a bad rap in large due to conspiracy theories around the coronavirus. The pandemic, which has devastated economies, claimed countless lives and has the world in tenterhooks, has been easy to blame on an entity many do not understand because there are so many unanswered questions. In recent weeks, celebrities have tweeted about the dangers of 5G while followers have taken to the streets to torch towers. Yet, 5G is not something sinister as conspiracy theorists may have you believe, and it is merely a progression of our current technologies as societies increasingly go mobile and consume more data. It is imperative for us to embrace and adopt 5G because it is going to be the bedrock of the economy of the 21st century.

To understand 5G, we must understand what preceded it. First came the first generation (1G) technology, which was when we started communicating with each other using only voice. Then came the second generation (2G) technology, which included text messages to voice cellular communication. Then the third generation (3G) technology, which allowed you to surf the internet and to send some pictures in addition to voice and text. Then came the fourth generation (4G) technology, which was a faster version of 3G, giving you the ability to download a movie in six hours, for instance. 5G technology is an evolution of this. It will be so fast that it will take 6 seconds to download a movie.

You can imagine how this is going to transform communication fundamentally. For instance, surgeons will be able to use robotics to perform surgeries on the other side of the world because the reaction time is going to be very quick. Self-driving cars are going to be more common and car accidents will be fewer and fewer. But what exactly is 5G? To understand 5G, we need to understand the spectrum, which is about frequency.

Cellular communication is done using electromagnetic waves, which are the unity of magnetic and electrical forces. Simply put, every time you see a magnet, there is electricity, and conversely, every time you see electricity in a conductor, there is a magnet. That is what is called electromagnetism, and electromagnetic waves are what we use in our communication. Imagine if you are on a beach somewhere in Durban and you see a wave coming. The frequency is the number of waves that pass a particular point in one second. In this scenario, if five waves pass a specific point in one second, we could refer to it as 5 Hertz (Hz). We use the term Hertz because the person who proved the existence of electromagnetic waves was Hendrich Rudolph Hertz. You may have heard of bandwidth referred to with mega Hertz – this is simply a big (mega) frequency. The length of the wave is called a wavelength. If you multiply the frequency by wavelength, we get the speed of light. If the frequency is high, the length of the wave is low. If the length of the wave is high, then the frequency is low. So, how does this relate to 5G?

5G requires 600MHz to 6GHz, which is the same as the one used by 3G as well as the millimetre wave bands 24GHz to 86GHz. This set of the frequency spectrum is allocated to anyone who wants to use them, whether it is MTN or Vodacom, for instance, by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) in conjunction with the Department of Communications. However, no spectrum has been awarded in the last 15 years, which has made it very difficult to allocate spectrum for 5G. Last year, the Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams issued policy directives intended to ensure that the new spectrum will be released. In South Africa, much of the spectrum we need is allocated to terrestrial television, which transmits using radio waves. There are two types of television, analogue and digital television. Digital television uses ones and zeros. Because analogue communication requires a massive amount of spectrum, the government has a digitisation project, which began more than a decade ago. The digitisation project is essential for us to liberate spectrum, so we can use it for 5G spectrum allocation.

However, because the wavelength is low for 5G, a transmitter cannot broadcast for considerable distances. Because of that, 5G requires you to have more broadcasting masts (big aerial) than 4G. For example, in Duthuni, my village in the Limpopo Province, there is one mast that services all the people in our village and neighbouring areas. This will not be possible with 5G. With 5G, our streetlights are going to be used as masts, which are in abundance and are closer together, to transmit information. This is important because the wavelengths are smaller. This, of course, will mean that we will see a lot of reconfiguration of how we transmit information. 5G masts are going to be much closer to our homes, and this will have all sorts of implications for people. The big question we need to answer is how we are going to make equal provision for telecommunication in urban and rural areas. It seems that 5G will exclude rural dwellers.

5G technology offers outstanding network performance, but is it dangerous? Some conspiracy theorists are linking 5G to the coronavirus. There is no causal connection between 5G technology and any biological virus, including the COVID-19. The second concern around 5G is that it emits radiofrequency radiation that is dangerous to human health. The word radiation is scary because it is linked to nuclear bombs. Nuclear radiation is ionising and can modify the DNA and destroy cells. Non-ionising radiation like high-frequency electromagnetic waves are non-ionising and therefore, are not as dangerous. We, however, should invest in research on the health impact of 5G.

As we begin to consider 5G in South Africa, it is essential to understand what is happening globally. The most prominent global countries in 5G are China and the USA. These two countries are battling it out in a cold war over the control of 5G. So far, China has emerged as the frontrunner. Why is China ahead?

In 1978, when Deng Xiaoping emerged as the leader of China, he was interested in modernising the country as fast as possible. He even came up with the concept of special economic zones, which were meant to attract technology primarily from the West. The idea was that if the Chinese were employed in these hubs, they would start to understand and make indigenous technology. Of course, at the time, Deng encountered a great deal of opposition from the Communist Party of China. At the same time, he called for China’s leaders to be more educated and technologically adept. Because of that, the current President Xi Jinping is a chemical engineer. He succeeded President Hu Jintao who is a civil engineer, who succeeded President Jiang Zemin, an electrical engineer. Because people who understand technology have ruled China, they do not have to be convinced to invest in technology, and thus China has emerged at the forefront of 5G.

What then do we do as Africans so that we emerge as participants in 5G? Throughout 1G to 4G, Africa has merely been spectators and customers. If we are not careful with 5G, we risk being spectators once again, but this time, we may not even be customers. This is because a certain level of infrastructure is required for 5G. Given all these dynamics, including the geopolitical tensions, how do we get involved? How do we make sure that we do not become pawns in 5G cold wars that we might not benefit from and that we simply do not understand?

One solution is that we need to be able to educate our people across the board to understand the link between international relations and technology and use that to position South Africa strategically. On the one hand, this will entail attracting more people to universities to understand complex concepts that are relevant to 5G, such as Einstein’s theory of relativity or Maxwell’s equations amongst others. On the other hand, it will also call for our people to go out into the world to learn about how other nations are educating and developing new technologies.

The outcome, of course, is that our participation in global affairs should see us get a piece of the cake that has already been shared among other nations. We cannot afford as the African continent to receive the crumbs of technological developments or to be spectators in this development.

*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.


prof tshilidzi marwala
Prof Tshilidzi Marwala Vice- Chancellor & Principal of the University of Johannesburg
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