The Mobile World Congress in Barcelona ended a week ago and one of the major focuses this year was 5G. The fifth generation of broadband cellular network technology, succeeding 4G is expected to launch in the US by the end of this year. Europe, Japan, South Korea will adopt the technology in 2019 and China in 2020. MTN also recently tested the new standards in SA and you may be thinking ‘our neighbours are already testing 5G why aren’t we?’
These developments got me thinking about our ICT & Cyber Security Minister’s thoughts concerning the newest network standard. Back in August last year, Supa Mandiwanzira informed Cajnews that the country’s operators are not yet ready to implement 5G. He said:
It’s a noble call to have 5G, but the country is not yet ready for that. We are not yet done with rolling out 4G due to a number of reasons, so, rushing to 5G will be overzealous.
Mandiwanzira is very right and I think we will not be ready for this technology anytime soon. With 5G’s theoretical speeds of +1Gb/s, you’re probably thinking I am crazy for saying adoption of this technology might not be the best case for Zimbabwe, but just hold on and let me try to explain myself.
Theoretical Speeds are never achieved in daily use
First of all, the theoretical speeds that are thrown about during the testing periods are rarely achievable in actual use on a day-to-day basis. So, yes 5G is being advertised as capable of delivering 1GB/s but the chances that it will reach these heights once it’s actually out are close to impossible.
When 4G was being advertised and launched the word on the street was that it’s supposed to reach 100MB/s but personally, I’ve never reached these blazing speeds on my 4G-capable phone. I also don’t know anyone who has actually reached these blazing speeds. I used speedtest.net to check the speeds I was getting and at the time of writing I’m getting 3.10MB/s. Sure, this is nothing to scoff at but it’s far from the promised 100MB/s. In fact, it’s only 3.1% of what 4G should be theoretically capable of. You may argue “these are speeds in Zim and Zim isn’t the best place to measure 4G quality!!!”, but here’s some evidence that may help me in my case to rubbish theoretical speeds. The fastest network provider in the UK can only provide 18MB/s on LTE(a more advanced revision of 4G).
So if a nation like the UK can only achieve 18% of the promised speeds is it clear now that theoretical speeds are just theory?
What network providers don’t tell subscribers is that network speeds are affected by many factors which include distance from a network tower, number of users relying on the same tower, and the weather. This is why users end up getting far lower than the advertised speeds. Econet’s 4G LTE page promises 300 MB/s which may not be a lie but because of the above factors, I end up getting 3.1MB/s as I said before.
5G capable devices won’t be widely available anytime soon
Right now there are no mobile phones that are 5G ready. Yes, not even a single one. Not your iPhone X, not your Galaxy S8 or the phone you’re reading this on.
This means the phones that are going to initially have 5G will be the flagship(more expensive) phones. The Samsung Galaxy S10 or 11(if they are even called that) and maybe iPhone 12. The point is the phones that will come with 5G in its first two years are the most expensive phones. The ones that are out of most Zimbos reach because of pricing. My question becomes, what’s the point of investing in technology that is far from mass adoption?
Looking back at how the 4G launch went, iPhone only adopted 4G in the iPhone 5 in 2012, a full 2 years after 4G was introduced. Rumour has it 2019’s iPhone will not have 5G and this got me thinking. If the most popular mobile phone maker will take 2 years before adopting this technology then how necessary is it that a developing country adopt this technology in its infancy?
4G coverage in Zimbabwe isn’t available nationally
Apart from the major cities, 4G is still a rarity in most areas in the country. Econet has the widest coverage in the country but it’s still not the entire country. NetOne is a distant second and Telecel are still on 3G but they did announce that 4G is on the way last year.
Anyway, the fact that 4G is not available nationwide is an indicator of the costs necessary to adopt these technologies. What’s the benefit of Zim adopting 5G early on whilst some parts of the nation are not yet able to access the internet? This leads to the next negative effect of adopting 5G before rolling out internet throughout the country.
Cost of 5G installation will slow down the spread of Internet coverage in the country going forward
Once the MNO’s start developing 5G infrastructure they’ll target the major cities first. Basically, Harare and Bulawayo followed by Mutare and then other cities. This means the cities that already had 4G coverage are getting 5G but the neglected communities most likely stay neglected cause there is not much of an incentive to get coverage there.
Once MNO’s have started developing 5G infrastructure, best believe it will be in every marketing campaign for a very long time and focus on other features. MNO’s love being first to market with products so once 5G becomes the in-thing developing older technologies will become of secondary concern.
I rest my case!
For the reasons stated above I think Zimbabwe should look into 5G investment once they have ensured that 3G basic coverage is at least nationwide. I do not think it’s necessary to rush and adopt 5G when it’s still expensive for both the network providers and their subscribers. For now, I think it’s better we rely on our 4G and look to expand that before looking at the bright lights of 5G…
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