How 5G will change our lives, if and when it arrives

To understand the importance of the spectrum auction scheduled for next month, and the significance of possible delays in the process, it is necessary to unpack just how spectrum can change the country.

In a study on the economic impact of 5G, "Powering Your Tomorrow", released this week by PwC, it was forecast that productivity and efficiency gains enabled by 5G will add $1.3-trillion (R19-trillion) to global GDP by 2030, from changes in business, skills and services.

More than half of this economic impact - $530bn - will be driven by the transformation of health and social care, with another quarter driven by smart utilities, by savings in energy, water and waste management.

"Large manufacturing-based economies are likely to gain the most, including the US, China and Japan, but gains are projected globally as 5G integrates as a critical part of societal infrastructure," PwC reported.

Specific uses for 5G mapped out by the GMS Association, representing mobile network operators worldwide, include high-speed broadband in the home and office; quick deployment of temporary connectivity; industrial automation; remote object manipulation; virtual reality and meetings; and next-generation transport connectivity.

What the forecast productivity and efficiency gains enabled by 5G will add to global GDP by 2030, according to a PwC study.

In a study last year by World Wide Worx, "5G prospects for SA in 2021", mobile network operators were unanimous that the allocation of new spectrum is an opportunity to use communications technology for the economic development of SA as a whole.

The study concluded that the spectrum allocation would be a foundation for the rollout of technologies underlying the fourth industrial revolution, such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, autonomous technologies and cloud computing.

These findings, however, represent an ideal. To unpack the significance of spectrum for SA, we posed the most frequently asked questions on the topic to two of the country's leading telecommunications analysts, Sabelo Dlamini, senior analyst at the International Data Corporation, and telecoms consultant Lisa Thornton.

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Why is spectrum important?

Lisa Thornton: Spectrum is a valuable limited resource. It is used by a number of industries, including telecommunications and broadcasting, to provide services to customers, and by the government to provide services to constituents, like public safety, utilities, and air traffic control. Increasingly, the mobile telecommunications industry has . an outsized importance to socioeconomic development all over the world.

Sabelo Dlamini: In a country like SA, where we do not have sufficient fixed infrastructure for back-haul and last-mile access, the cost of deploying it is very high, considering the terrain.

Spectrum is an important ingredient in enabling wireless and mobile communications technologies, which we need in order to provide communications, especially in the rural parts of the country.

In tangible terms, what will spectrum allocation do for SA?

Thornton: Spectrum is an input to the provision of services. And it is scarce. The government manages who gets it. And who gets it is based on, among other things, the government's policies and the objectives of those policies. The relevant policies . include the 2019 policy on high-demand spectrum and policy direction on the licensing of the Wireless Open Access Network (WOAN). The policy objectives include ensuring the WOAN's sustainability, promoting universal services including to rural and under-served areas, promoting competition with an emphasis on service-based competition through the WOAN, and promoting historically disadvantaged persons and SMMEs.

Dlamini: As most economies are moving to digital processes, as a country we do not want to be left behind. Improved connectivity and access to digital platforms for government departments, businesses and consumers can hugely impact economic activities in the country and positively impact economic growth.

What does a delay in allocation mean?

Thornton: [It] will mean a delay in the furtherance of the aims of the policies of the government. But - and this is a big but - if the policies are not implemented effectively, then the objectives may never be met. That is what is alleged by Telkom, among others, in its court challenge to the current invitations to apply (ITAs) - that the ITAs are designed to give the current virtual duopoly access to more spectrum and entrench their market power for the foreseeable future. Telkom doesn't like this because it wants to be able to compete. But, more importantly for SA, if Telkom is right, the objectives of the policies of the government may be delayed or denied indefinitely.

Dlamini: It is widening the digital divide. The ones who are already connected are getting more advantages from digital technologies, but those who are not are being left behind. This means, as a country, we are missing the opportunity to participate in the early activities of the digital economy. Businesses may be left behind and lose competitiveness because of the limitation of technologies available to them.

According to Elmo Hildebrand, who leads the Telecommunications, Media and Entertainment grouping at PwC Africa: "The advent of 5G networks will impact the entire technology, media and telecommunications value chain over the next decade."

He said consumers will use high-speed mobile data to access more content and services, "thereby opening up revenue opportunities in the entertainment and media sector, including gaming, video games, high-definition streaming of sporting events, music and over-the-top video".

That is, of course, if the spectrum to enable 5G networks is made available.