State’s lack of action on 5G is ruining SA’s economy


State’s lack of action on 5G is ruining SA’s economy

While the world – and African countries with fewer resources than us – leap into the digital future, SA slumbers

Executive editor: opinions and analysis
Huawei's headquarters in Shenzhen, China, the country's Silicon Valley.
ANOTHER PLANET Huawei's headquarters in Shenzhen, China, the country's Silicon Valley.
Image: Jason Lee/Reuters

I spent my lunch hour at the offices of global mobile giant Huawei in Woodmead, Johannesburg, on Tuesday. The company was hosting editors and journalists for an ICT (Information Communication Technology) Exchange session, part of which was a live crossing to its spectacular administrative campus in the southern city of Shenzhen, which has grown into the Silicon Valley of China.

The company has partnered with its home city to create a smart-city solution that makes use of thousands of cameras and sensors spread across Shenzhen. The system uses artificial intelligence, big data and high-speed 5G technology to process information in real time, which assists in everything from controlling traffic lights to ease congestion and help reduce accidents, to using facial recognition software to help law-enforcement agencies combat crime. An Intelligence Operations Centre (IOC) based at the Huawei campus acts as the “brain and nervous system” of the network that powers the smart city.

The company invests billions of dollars every year in ICT research. It is a world leader in 5G technologies, but the Chinese are already working at building the next generation Wi-Fi 6.

Huawei’s phenomenal global success has, however, been accompanied by controversy and suspicion. A number of countries have alleged that it is a front for the Chinese government and that its software contains holes that enable the administration in Beijing to conduct espionage. The US and its allies, including the UK, have banned the company from being part of the rollout of 5G in their countries, with Huawei finding itself at the centre of the trade dispute between China and the US.

Controversy aside, though, it is difficult not to admire and even display a tinge of jealousy at what the Chinese have achieved in just 30 years with Huawei.

Contrast that with the situation here at home. We have been stuck on gear one when it comes to licensing broadband spectrum suitable for building expanded 4G/LTE and 5G networks. That your smartphone connects to 4G/LTE should be attributed to the ingenuity of local mobile operators who, despite government failing dismally to formally licence spectrum suitable for the rollout of 4G, were able to reallocate existing spectrum assets that were used to build 2G and 3G networks to roll out the much faster 4G. Those same operators have been begging government to release high-demand spectrum, which transmits radio waves required for delivery of faster networks.

Ask any economic watcher out there and they’ll tell you that structural reforms required to resuscitate an economy that is on life support should begin with the low-hanging fruit that is licensing of high-demand spectrum.

Telecom regulator the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) has been playing ping-pong with the department of communications and digital technologies — to which it reports — over auctioning of high-demand spectrum. It announced invitations to apply for licensing of spectrum in October, setting a December deadline. It has since moved the date to March next year. Those telecommunications giants that have rolled out next-generation 5G in the country’s urban centres are relying on emergency spectrum issued to them in April.

Each day that Icasa and its parent department delay the auctioning of high-demand spectrum hurts the economy badly. Ask any economic watcher out there and they’ll tell you that structural reforms required to resuscitate an economy that is on life support should begin with the low hanging fruit that is licensing of high demand spectrum.

But when minister of communications and digital technologies Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams is more interested in populist grandstanding over the SABC retrenchments issue and scoring cheap political points with the board, real transformative issues that can kick-start the fourth industrial revolution take the back seat.

In truth, it’s unfair to compare us with the Chinese, who run a one-party political system that is intolerant of dissent, instead of a consultative democracy such as ours.

But forget China; we are lagging behind comparative countries in the developing world and even countries on this continent with less financial and natural resources. Take the Kenyans, for example. Huawei has developed a safe-city solution that has deployed 1,800 smart cameras in its capital, Nairobi, operated from the national police command centre. Here, more than 9,000 police officers react to situations in real time. The crime rate has since dropped by 46% and international travel to Kenya has increased by 13.5% year on year. Countries that have political will and more efficient administrations are exploiting new technologies to their advantage and national development, while we remain fast asleep at the wheel.