MTN Nigeria’s Curtain-raising 5G Demo

Founder/Editor-in-Chief | Cyber Era Nigeria.

If corporate citizen MTN Nigeria were a human being, its recent gutsy demonstration of 5G network in Abuja, Nigeria’s political capital, and other select cities in the country, would easily lend it for a chieftaincy title as 5G Curtain-raiser!  And, competition will not raise any eyebrows for such recognition because, it too, will agree, MTN Nigeria deserves it, writes CLIFFORD AGUGOESI.

Nigerians of Igbo extraction have many ways of characterizing the bold and the brave.  They begin by giving such persons names and nicknames that succinctly capture their individual and collective essences and wishes  such as Ekwueme (one who does what he says or talk ‘n’do, in local parlance) Okeosisi (iroko tree) or Osisi e ji ele osimiri(the stick that explores the deep sea or simply the path-finder) and so on.  Traditional rulers, if they read the minds and lips of the people accurately( they should, because, vox populi, vox dei, the voice of the people is the voice of God), would usually arrange and formalize recognitions to  such illustrious sons and daughters by giving them befitting chieftaincy titles. If corporate citizen MTN Nigeria were a human being, its recent gutsy demonstration of 5G network in Abuja, Nigeria’s political capital, and other select cities in the country, would easily lend it for a chieftaincy title as 5G Curtain-raiser!  And, competition will not raise any eyebrows for such recognition because, it too, will agree, MTN Nigeria deserves it.

The demo, which took place at MTN Nigeria regional office in Abuja, significantly,  was the first 5G trial in West Africa and was coming on the heels of a successful trial conducted by MTN South Africa in June 2018 and showcased the benefits of 5G network. The largest network provider in Africa, operating in over 15 African countries, partnered with leading global ICT equipment provider, Ericsson, for both trials, with Huawei in the South African trial and both Huawei and Ericsson, for the trials in Nigeria .

Operator Commitment Boosts Regulatory Confidence

Dr. Ali Isa Pantami
Prof. Umar Danbatta
Dr. Ernest Ndukwe

MTN Nigeria  deservescommendation on that exercise for many reasons.  First, it has served to boost the confidence of the sector regulator.  On Tuesday, March 27, 2018, when telecommunications sector umpire, the Nigerian Communications Commission(NCC), hosted media chiefs, ICT/Business/News Editors at the Sojourner By Genesis, 16, Oba Akinjobi Street, GRA, Ikeja, Lagos, south west, Nigeria, we confronted the Executive Vice Chairman/Chief Executive Officer(EVC/CEO) of the Commission, Professor Umar Garba Danbatta with many questions, including but not limited to Nigeria’s 5G Plan, to which the seminal don proffered answers, some satisfactory, others, not.  Prof. Danbatta stated that efforts as at the time of the meeting, were geared towards achieving pervasive 4G infrastructure. An optimistic, but not very confident Danbatta stated the National Broadband Plan took care of 5G, as according to him, Nigeria had achieved 5G at pilot stage. Why was Danbatta not very confident at that time even though he knew the manifold benefits that 5G potentially could wrought on the economy?

Hear him: “It remains to be seen whether the infrastructure to support 5G are in place.  Nigerians need to be sensitized about the great promise that 5G holds for this country.” Today, courtesy of the 5G demonstration by MTN, Danbatta is much more confident that the promise of 5G would ultimately be delivered to Nigerians.  It is not only regulatory confidence that the 5G demo has bolstered, but also that of other stakeholders of the telecommunications value chain namely-telcos, OEMs, VAS providers, consumers et cetera. At least, other telcos are now in a position to peer-review MTN Nigeria and learn from its trial triumphs and woes, if any. The MTN 5G demo also supports the reasoning,  within industry quarters, that early trials could potentially lead to commercial success, everything being equal.

The demo has sent a positive signal to telecom ecosystem players  namely aggregators, integrators, kiosk operators, et cetera, that business is in the offing. Mega business, if you will.   For the king of the value chain, which the consumers represent, the demonstration, on the face value, equates with improved service quality and, by extension, quality of experience.   In addition to sending the signal to other global contenders that MTN Group’s leadership ambitions are on course. 

Gutsy Entrepreneurship

MTN Nigeria’s curtain-raiser 5G trials are commendable the more because, they came at a time that analysts felt they should not be a priority in its operating environment.  In its report, titled, “Spotlight on Nigeria: Delivering a digital future”, the GSMA says Nigeria currently lags behind other African countries in 4G adoption, with less than 10 per cent of its mobile internet users connected to 4G. Now, Nigeria is doing about 40 per cent in 4G penetration, even as the 5G lion roars. Therefore, counsels the GSMA, rather than ramping up effort to launch 5G, increasing the coverage areas of 4G and 3G, providing reliable connectivity and reducing the cost of data, should be the focus of Nigerian telecom companies and ISPs.  But, by going ahead with the demo, MTN Nigeria, like the proverbial little child learning how to scale the heights, whose heat must be stout enough, has shown it is not a lilly-livered corporate entity, lending itself, worthily, therefore, as an example to follow by competition.

Reaping The Benefit Of Family

In March 2018, MTN South Africa(SA) and Huawei demonstrated what they tagged Africa’s first 5G field trial with an end-to-end Huawei 5G solution, which showcased a Fifth Generation (5G) fixed-wireless access use case with Huawei’s 5G 28GHz millimetre-wave technology in a “real-world” environment in Hatfield, Pretoria.

The SA trial achieved speeds of 520Mbit/s on the downlink and 77Mbit/s on the uplink.  At that trial, MTN Group Chief Technology and Information Systems Officer, at that time, Babak Fouladi said the trial provided MTN with valuable insight into how much work there was still left to do before 5G was switched on.

At AfricaCom Conference 2019, in Cape Town, MTN took a giant step in its network evolution plan towards 5G with the launch of a C-band 5G trial with Huawei.  C-band, also called ‘golden band’ for 5G spectrum, is a valuable segment of spectrum and comprises a frequency range of about 3.3GHz – 3.8GHz.

At that event, the two companies signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to establish a joint 5G innovation programme to assess and work on new technologies such as 5G and Artificial Intelligence (AI).  Being a proud member of the MTN Group, the report of the trial is available to MTN Nigeria for the asking and may have informed the Nigerian network’s effort in trialing the technology.

Bringing 5G Use Case Experience Closer Home

Africa is expected, as it is already happening in other climes,  to develop use cases that have a social impact, including smart cities and education, driven by 5G, AI and other technologies. The incumbent MTN Chief Technology and Information Officer (CTIO) Giovanni Chiarelli, said the trial demonstrated the capability of this new technology while giving customers a glimpse of what the future held, showcasing the next generation of applications for consumer and enterprise customers.

“MTN will further co-operate with Huawei to accelerate commercial 5G deployment,” Chiarelli added.

The media launch demonstrated use cases including a live 5G speed test (with throughputs up to 1.6Gbit/s) and a series of live 5G demonstrations, such as Cloud virtual reality (VR) gaming, a robotic arm guessing platform and augmented reality (AR) eyeglasses- demonstrating facial recognition.

Huawei’s  Carrier Business Vice President for Southern Africa, Dean Yu, highlighted that 5G was at the stage of large-scale deployment in 2019 globally.  “In 5G era, more ‘Cloud Native’ services will appear,” Yu said.

MTN Nigeria Inspired By MTN SA

Indeed, analysts believe that the just concluded 5G trial in Nigeria,especially, through the partnership with Huawei, rode on the back of the SA exercise! Industry experts argue that missing out of  the Fifth Generation technology, will pose big developmental challenge to Nigeria, which explains why, at the recent trial, they welcomed the tests across the select cities. The experts’ view may not be divorced from concerns about Nigeria’s readiness for the 5G technology deployment following the less than 40 per cent(not impressive) broadband penetration in the country.

But, fully aware of the manifold benefits that the technology could potentially bring to the national economy, however, the stakeholders have stressed why the country cannot wait any longer to embrace  the imminent revolution. Currently, connectivity obtainable in Nigeria on previous generations of technologies, including 2G, 3G and 4G still leaves much to be desired even as other countries are already moving towards 5G.

The experts further argue that with Nigeria conspicuously missing in the past industrial revolutions, the benefits of the current Fourth Industrial revolution, seen as the era of technology advancement, should not elude it. And, nothing can be far from this blazing truth.

Speaking at the 5G trial in Abuja, the former Executive Vice Chairman and Chief Executive Officer (EVC/CEO) of telecommunications sector regulator, the Nigerian Communications Commission( NCC), and current Chairman of the Board of MTN Nigeria, Dr. Ernest Ndukwe, asked this rhetorical question, “was Nigeria ready for the mobile telephone business in 1999? The answer from all available technological infrastructure was no! What the country lacked in technology in 1999 was present in foresight, market and a ready band of Nigerians ready to make the dream possible. We all know how much progress we have made since that first phone call in 2001.”

Indeed, the GSM service in the country went from an elite preserve to the must-have of every Nigerian willing to have a cell phone.  SIM cards went from about N40,000 in 2001 to N100, 18 years after. This is why people like the Governor of Kaduna State, north west, Nigeria, Malam Nasir E’Rufai  will be over the moon NITEL died a natural death.

However, drawing from the strength of the past, and the partnership between the Federal Government, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), and operators, especially MTN,  Ndukwe noted that the possibility of 5G revolutionising peoples’ way of life is immense.

According to him, with the potential applications for medical imaging, video conferencing, and gaming, 3D holographic communication, 5G provides the needed speed, and required low latency that will support this kind of application on a network.

How 5G Differs From 4G

 5G is a disruptional variation from 4G.  5G has the potential to provide 20 times faster data speeds and carries a massive amount of data for a large number of simultaneous users. So, users in high-density areas like airports, stadia or urban areas can still experience the fast speeds and low latency of 5G services.

According to industry watchers, as the world replaces more and more household items with ‘smart devices’ that connect to the Internet, also known as the Internet of Things( IoT), this network capacity will be critical. They posited that 5G will potentially be able to handle more than 2.5 million connected devices per square mile.

5G supports data transfer rates of up to 20Gbit/s. On top of that, wireless data delays drop to one millisecond. This opens up the potential for multiple driverless cars, where large quantities of potentially live saving data have to be transferred almost instantaneously.  In short, the value proposition of 5G is humongous!

How Nigeria Plans To Implement 5G

Ahead of the 2020 set date for the roll out of 5G networks in Nigeria, the NCC will look at three strategic areas of interest that will be beneficial to the country, nay Africa. These areas of focus include enhanced mobile broadband applications, the low ultra-reliable, low latency applications, and the Machine-to-Machine application. According to the Commission, Nigeria and other parts of Africa will subscribe quickly to the enhanced mobile broadband application.

The EVC/CEO of NCC, Prof. Umar Danbatta, said the reason for this was because African countries are trying to roll out broadband infrastructure for broadband applications. “So this will spur us on to ensure we put in place the necessary infrastructure,” he stressed.

In terms of readiness of the Continent for 5G evolution, Danbatta said Nigeria and other countries within the region are trying to reserve the spectrum for the roll out of broadband services. In specific terms, Danbatta said in Nigeria, the focus is on 26GHz, 38GHz and 42GHz. He noted that these frequencies exist and are not licensed for any other application.

The Importance Of Conducive Environment

The Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, who spoke after the live demo, underlined the potential of 5G for sustainable growth. “I believe as long as we are able to handle the potential challenges, the deployment of 5G is very critical to our economy, because of so many advantages of 5G, the issue of latency, speed and many more,” he said

Stressing the importance of an enabling regulatory framework and protecting telecommunications infrastructure, Pantami said on the instruction of the President, he has signed a draft Executive Order declaring telecommunications infrastructure ‘critical national infrastructure’, which has been forwarded to the Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation for review.

The Minister referred to the proposed Executive Order as a short-term measure, adding that the President has instructed that a proper legislation be facilitated to deal conclusively with threats to telecommunications infrastructure. Dr. Pantami also used the occasion to apologise to MTN Nigeria for the late release of the trial spectrum to them as a result of some administrative bottlenecks.  The humility exhibited by the minister in rendering apology to MTN Nigeria, is commendable since the admittance of wrong doing is a precondition for forgiveness.

Speaking on the partnership with the Ministry and other stakeholders, the Chief Executive Officer, MTN Nigeria, Ferdi Moolman, said: “Pushing boundaries is easier when your aspirations are supported by like-minded people. We are here today because of the support and guidance of the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy and the Nigerian Communications Commission, who provided the trial spectrum used for this.” 

As per the regulator, there is no deployment of 5G in Nigeria at the moment. The telecom umpire in  November 2019, approved trial test for 5G for a period of three (3) months, which has been concluded and installation decommissioned. 

The NCC said it will continue to maintain its policy of technology neutrality and will continue to encourage service providers to deploy the best technology that will meet the needs of the society in a secured and friendly manner. 

 The industry earnestly awaits the relevant authorities namely the National Frequency Management Council (NFMC), chaired by the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, which  has the responsibility for allocating bulk spectrum for various services, while the NCC assigns these resources, to do the needful. 

There is no doubt that the Coronavirus(COVID-19) may have jolted stakeholders of the telecoms value chain, including the firming up of MTN ‘s  commercial launch plans, among others. While allaying fears of a correlation between 5G Technology and COVID-19, the NCC stated that 5G is an advancement on today’s 4G technology, designed to transform the world positively. 

At the global level, South Korea, commercial 5G services pioneer, was reported to be nearing 10 per cent 5G penetration.  Reading stories like these, keeps many expectant Nigerians on the 5G value proposition, in a state of suspended animation, prompting many to ask when the technology would become a reality in the country?

However, the topmost question on their lips right now is: will MTN Nigeria be the first telco to launch commercial 5G services in Nigeria?  The future will tell.

* Agugoesi is the Founder/Editor-in-Chief of Cyber Era

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