Prepare for the future

The next generation of communications tech, 5G, will slot neatly into the roadmap.

From global equipment providers to local regulators, the groundwork for the 5G future is being laid.

When a regulator that is infamous for being behind the times starts preparing for the future, business and consumers must also get ready for massive change.

The Independent Communications Authority SA (Icasa) last week announced it will conduct market reviews on what it calls “priority markets” in communications.

This means it will look at how regulating these markers can help reduce the high cost of communication for consumers.

Icasa identified three categories of service it intends to regulate, namely wholesale fixed access, including ADSL and fibre; “upstream infrastructure markets” like national fibre grids and urban networks; and high-speed mobile services.

That means that, among other services, Icasa is preparing to target consumer and business pricing of mobile data, with 3G and 4G in the crosshairs. The next generation of communications technology, 5G, will slot neatly into this roadmap.

The proof of the intention will lie in whether it hits the target. Few in the industry forget that, a decade ago, Icasa first issued test licences for a low-cost wireless broadband technology called WiMax, but to this day has not extended it much beyond a couple of state-owned enterprises.

Since then, an upgraded form of 3G called LTE, along with 4G, have arrived, and we are at the dawn of 5G. The new standard was finalised at the end of last year, and compatible equipment is steadily being rolled out.

However, a combination of the cost of new networks and the slow piece of regulation means it will probably be another four years before we see true 5G in South Africa.

According to the latest edition of the yearly Mobility Report from global equipment maker Ericsson, mobile broadband only accounted for about 5% of mobile subscriptions in sub-Saharan Africa at the end of 2017, compared to 20% for the whole Middle East and Africa.

Ericsson expects this region to rise to 90% in the next five years, driven by a young and growing population with increasing digital skills, as well as more affordable smartphones. By then, 5G will also have entered the mix, with Ericsson suggesting significant volumes of users coming on board in 2022.

By the following year, more than a fifth of the world’s population will be covered by 5G, and we can expect smartphones, computers and networks to be completely transformed by the massive speed increases this suggests.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the US, in January, Intel demonstrated a 1.6 gigabyte per second link over a single 5G mobile connection, streaming a 4K movie and a high-definition virtual reality movie over the same link, “with bandwidth to spare”. This tells us the future is coming at us so fast. For businesses as well as consumers, it is sometimes easier to batten down the hatches and pretend the storm is not happening.

After all, many businesses, consumers and organisations will strive to continue doing things the way they always have. That means they can be served in the same way as always, with the same kinds of products. The problem with that approach, however, is that, at some point, the penny drops that the world has moved on, the competition has moved on, and they have been left behind.

At the Cisco Live conference in Barcelona earlier this year, the company presented eight distinct categories of technology change that it had distilled from the World Economic Forum proceedings a few weeks before. From robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) to the Internet of Things and data analytics, any one of these represents a shift in the way business will buy technology.

Taken together, the eight categories represent a tidal wave of change. This was also an overriding message at Dell Technologies World in Las Vegas at the beginning of May. Dell founder and chief executive Michael Dell said: “At first, the power of digital transformation was a secret that only we in the IT industry knew. But now the secret of digital transformation has burst onto the public consciousness.

“Every customer I meet is reimagining how they use technology. Tech is now at the very top of the agenda for business leaders everywhere, because today technology strategy is business strategy.” Later, he told a media briefing that business globally is in a technology-led investment cycle. He is seeing an explosion in use cases for AI, which includes neural networking, machine learning and deep learning.

“We’ve seen a rapid acceleration in our server business, and when we dig into what’s happening, AI is the big use case. What we don’t find is horizontal AI. AI gets very vertical very quickly, meaning that it is entering every industry.

“To be competitive in the future, you have to use AI and data and do it at record speed and at scale. It all starts with a company’s data, and the data helps make a product or service better. This allows a company to attract more customers, which creates more data, and the cycle repeats itself.”

All of this does not even take into account the massive changes that will become possible when mobile network operators start rolling out 5G networks alongside the existing 2G, 3G and 4G infrastructure. While the legacy networks are heavily voice-focused, 5G will be a data play. But this will be data on steroids, as capacity and speeds reach levels that make entirely new categories of technology product and even of business model possible.

Ironically, while 5G was the word on almost every vendor’s lips at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February, very little equipment is yet available that complies with the formal standard. That is about to change, and we can expect 5G-ready, 5G-compatible and 5G-compliant to become new buzzwords as manufacturers scramble to join the bandwagon.

This, in turn, will see new capabilities in products ranging from virtual reality and smartphones to connected cars and smart assistants. These will not be incremental changes, but will represent a radical shift in the way technology is used.

That, in turn, means a shift in the way technology is bought. As a result, anyone in the business of selling technology will soon have to learn not only new skills, but almost entirely new product languages.

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