Cutting through the hype: Tanzania is not ready for 5G

Tuesday February 25 2020

 

By Charles Makakala

One of the biggest fallacies in the technology market is the idea that if something is new and shining then it is necessarily useful. So much money is being wasted in adopting useless solutions and manufacturers have built their empires by promoting this misconception to the gullible who swallow it hook, line, and sinker.

This is what I thought when a friend visited my office in 2018 waxing lyrical about the plan of one telco’s CEO – his friend – of deploying 5G solution in Tanzania. They had photos and stuff which he was showing to me enthusiastically.

While I was completely dumbfounded, I thought that that wasn’t the time to weigh in with my opinion. They had fallen prey to the scams of the technology peddlers.

The plan which my friend shared had multiple flaws. Firstly, they conceived using high tension electricity pylons as poles for 5G equipment. While the idea of reusing public infrastructures to deliver added value to the community ought to be commended, but there is a mismatch between what was proposed and what needs to be achieved.

High tension power lines require a clearance zone of 300m on both sides, while 5G has a range of around 500m. That is, at least 70 percent of the antenna resources will be wasted.

Secondly, usually the routes taken by high tension power lines go through low density if not isolated areas while 5G is developed for high demand and high-density city neighbourhoods. The planners went for a tower choice which negates the very purpose the technology was developed to serve.

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Thirdly, the timing of the deployment. Analysts project that 4G adoption rate would be ubiquitous by year 2030. That is 4G, not 5G. So, to be thinking of 5G in 2018 shows that one lacks any understanding of technology trends in the market. It is possibly a good thing that we have not yet heard any noises regarding this project from the operator. While one hopes that cooler heads have prevailed, one should not bet against the project. Africa is a country after all.

In assessing the utility of any new technology solution one ought to ask himself a number of questions. Foremost among them is ‘which content are we targeting’? 5G is designed to provide throughputs of over 1.5Gbps per base station, that is equivalent to the total international internet capacity acquired for all government institutions in Tanzania. So how is an individual going to use this capacity in his hands?

What about video, someone may ask? Indeed, 5G will prove to be god-sent for video fanatics: it will make it possible for people to watch ultra-high definition movies without a glitch, with an 8GB Blu-Ray movie delivered within a minute.

So, if we ignore all questions associated with a 5G content ecosystem such as source, cost, and devices, how much of this content can one consume in a day? If we were Americans who spend about 4 hours watching TV every day, that would still be at most a minute or two of content time. So, the question remains, how is the network going to be used for the remainder of the time?

Alas, this is what happens when we start with a solution and then look for a problem to solve. A tragic strategic mistake.

The essence of 5G is not speed but services. And when we cut through the hype the fact is that Tanzania is not ready for 5G. We neither have the governing framework, infrastructure, content, devices, and international capacity to make it useful.

We have to stop solving problems by patching them up with new technology solutions. The current solutions are good enough for us today – and they are getting cheaper by the day. All that we need is to use them well. That is being smart and sober.