Interview: CommScope’s Riaan Graham on the state of 5G in Africa

Interview: CommScope's Riaan Graham on the state of 5G in Africa
Riaan Graham, Enterprise Director for CommScope sub-Saharan Africa

According to the GSMA, the integration of 5G into the way we live and work has the potential to impact African communities and economies even more than previous generations. Though not all 5G networks are equal, the right policies can help regulators, governments and business to make the most of them, both now and in the future.

TechMetro Africa’s Vardis Banga had an in-depth discussion with Riaan Graham, Enterprise Director for CommScope sub-Saharan Africa, on the state of 5G technology in Africa.

VB: Talk to us about your background and career

RG: I have been in the broadband wireless access industry for the best part of 22-23 years, long before Wi-Fi was a standard in the industry. I spent my time in the broadband or microwave transmission environment with E-RAN (enterprise radio access network), 3G and 4G systems. That’s where I got my pedigree from and these days I am looking after the CommScope networking business which covers Wi-Fi and switching technology.

VB: About CommScope?

RG: CommScope is a large multinational looking after a number of technology sets within the broader service provider or Internet Service Provider (ISP) space. We manufacture 3G, 4G and 5G antenna systems and cabling reticulation systems for the 4G and 5G market. We’ve got systems that we develop and deploy that is distributed access systems for inside of malls to get sufficient cellular coverage. Currently, we are the third largest fibre manufacturer globally as well, so we have a very diverse broad spectrum of technologies under the CommScope umbrella. For antenna systems, some are familiar with the Andrew system, which was acquired by CommScope in 2008 and also, Ruckus was acquired about 24 months ago, so we are part of a much larger organisation wholly focused on telecommunications technologies. 

[VB] CommScope’s footprint in Africa?

[RG] We do a lot of business across Africa and our regional head office for Africa is based in Johannesburg. We service the whole of the sub-Saharan continent. We do large scale projects all the way from Algeria, Nigeria, down to South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique, Mauritius, Namibia, Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania and Uganda. We are pervasive throughout Africa, and we largely follow a partner or channel model. On the service provider side, we have direct access to large service providers like Vodafone and MTN, but we always use a fulfilment partner to build out the project.

[VB] What is the state of 5G wireless deployments in Africa?

[RG] In Africa, the good news is that 5G is now a mature enough product to be a rolled out. I think Africa is still slightly behind from a deployment perspective versus the 1st world countries in Europe and North America specifically, and the reason is that we need to be aware of the fact that assets that are currently available such as 3G and 4G networks, get built at huge costs and what will happen with 5G is that it will start rearing its head in the main CBDs and central areas.

In other words if you look at a country like Kenya, 5G will start making its presence felt in the built-up high density areas of Nairobi for instance, and then over time it will start building out. So, 5G is being built out but we need to be aware that the way 5G works is that your cell coverage is significantly less than traditional 3G and 4G, which means that you need a lot more infrastructure to cover that particular area and that will push up the cost as well. So, it is always the cost versus performance ratio that you need to look at. 

[VB] How far is Africa lagging behind in developing its own technologies such as 5G that can be embraced globally? Africa has largely been seen as an adopter of technology developed elsewhere.

[RG] We need to acknowledge where Africa has done well. I can give you a couple of examples where we have been the market leaders globally in technology and specifically in the GSM arena. One of them would be the prepaid cards, the pay as you go cards system. That was developed in Africa and the reason is that the demand is quite different, the way we transact in Africa is quite different from Europe and the rest of the world.

The other technology developed is the M-PESA project in Kenya, which is basically a money transfer, cashless technology. That was developed locally in Africa. It is the same with South Africa where the ‘please call me’ service was developed. So, there are a number of technologies that are being developed in Africa no doubt.

However, if we talk about the actual plumbing of 4G and 5G which is typically the planning, carrier that transmits and enables you to transfer the data services, I think that we are way behind the market leaders. So, the brains trust, in my opinion lives in the European or Eastern territories, if you look at Huawei, very strong development skills and developing the newest technology sets, Nokia is another one and Ericsson among others.

So, I think it will be very difficult for Africa to develop a technology from scratch because its so advanced at this stage already. However, what we can do is, we are very clever at taking the 4G and 5G technologies and build applications and new ways of utilising that spectrum to service specific needs in the market which I think is important.

[VB] What are the benefits that 5G brings to consumers and businesses in Africa?

[RG] There are a number of benefits, a couple of them specifically in the African context. What we should have a look at is because Africa is not a heavily built-up continent like Europe, North America or South America we’ve got large amounts of the population that lives in rural territories. So, what 5G technology will potentially offer in those territories will typically be better and faster access to medicine. Because of the capacity that 5G offers, you can now have remote telemedicine services in small villages, do diagnosis of patients and being able to prescribe specific drugs for specific requirements. So, medicine will have a distinct benefit for the African continent at large.

The other benefit is that it will ensure economic growth and enablement because with 5G and the benefits of it like higher capacity, low lantencies etc, it drives new innovations in a non-traditional markets, so you will find again that in territories where you would not necessarily think there are innovation hubs so to speak, 5G will give entrepreneurs and developers, access to utilising this technology to deliver new services which is always good.

Then we look at manufacturing. The automation and improvement of manufacturing utilising 5G technologies is critical as well. With the way manufacturing gets optimised and gets streamlined today, 5G will play a major role in that, adding new sensors, making sure manufacturing works the way it should, having probes and sensors communicate with other systems to let them know – listen I’m running out of this kind of raw product, I need the following within this period. This gives a much holistic view in the manufacturing arena which has benefits for Africa as well.

If we look a bit further into the future, as 5G becomes more pervasive, it will give small business enterprises the capability to compete with the large multi-nationals. They will have access to connectivity and social media, in fact there are a number of case studies to support the fact that smaller companies today can compete head on with much larger multi-national organisations because of the way we connect, communicate and work today, which is completely different when compared to 10 years ago.

[VB] Turning to CIOs, how should they plan and architect their networks to maximise the promise of 5G technology?

[RG] In their planning, CIOs should definitely have a 5G model for their business, looking at how they incorporate 5G, how they streamline the service, what can they do with 5G and how does that optimise efficiency, service delivery and interconnectivity in the business. I think it should definitely be part and parcel of their larger plan. I do not think it should be all and end all but it will most likely be one of the building blocks that they will have to have a look at, in how to incorporate that into their larger model.

[VB] What pitfalls should CIOs and IT teams avoid when deploying 5G in their IT environment?

[RG] You need to be very clear on what benefits 5G can deliver. It should not be an all and end all technology. You need to take the 5G benefits and marry that to other technology sets to introduce a better complimentary service. For instance, make sure that 5G forms part and parcel of your model to market but leverage Wi-Fi, fibre connectivity, data centre, cloud where it makes sense. You need to balance where the benefit sits within your organisation and how you can leverage that.

[VB] What do you see as challenges for enterprises in Africa as 5G networks are deployed across the continent?

[RG] For the next 24 months, I think the challenge would be that 5G will not be a pervasive technology that is available everywhere. It will be available in pockets, so you need to design and build your structure and your model based on that. Over time, it will become more pervasive but I think you need to be aware that in certain areas specifically in Africa, we seem to lag about 4-5 years behind the rest of the world. It is a good thing because we learn from the first adopters’ mistakes. So, we will be able analyse and understand what works very well in industries, what doesn’t work well and how we can perfect and ensure that we utilise that properly. It is not always a bad thing to be slightly behind the curve because other people pay for lessons that you do not have to pay for.

[VB] 5G is here, what’s going to happen to 2G and 3G?

[RG] I think in the African context , there is definitely still validity and life for 3G and 4G technologies. 2G will slowly and surely be farmed out as it is a too slower technology utilise today but 3G and 4G, typically start to move from the core focus data transmission networks and be moved to the outer edge of the network, still providing valuable connectivity. As an example, in rural Africa, majority of the population do not need 1GB connection speeds. They want reliable texting services, money transfer services and that’s where 3G and 4G services will remain to service that kind of demand and market. So 5G is not going to replace 3G and 4G, it will just become the dominant technology. 3G and 4G will be used on the outer edge of the infrastructure.

[VB] Will the rollout of 5G in Africa accelerate Digital Transformation initiatives?

[RG] 4G has already started with that. Just think about the way we interact today on social media. 5 years ago, before 3G and 4G, we could not do it. 5G has changed the way we communicate and interact with each other from a customer perspective as well as on an individual level. 4G will just foster that mode of adopting. Newer applications and services will come online because of the benefits offered by 5G.

[VB] Your conclusion about the state of 5G in Africa?

[RG] The one thing we need to bear in mind, which has been proven in a number of studies is that, with the adoption of newer technologies, the more pervasive data connectivity becomes, the more likelihood there is economic well-being. One study stated that for every 10% of data penetration in a given territory, it typically equates to roughly 1% GDP growth. For Africa that is immense. We have up to 400 million people in the continent that still have not received the benefits of better data connectivity. So, you can imagine the amount of potential that lies within that populace. The idea would be to give them cost effective connectivity and new businesses can be formed because of the way you can now interact. Also, Africa has a very good entrepreneurial spirit and 5G will be an enabler for us to utilise and develop more of these technology sets that we can use.