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Virtualized 2G enables telcos to bridge the digital divide in Africa


African communications sector is at interesting crossroads. While the operators have started to move towards 5G, nearly 50% of the continent still has no access to mobile phones. The service providers have to do a tough balancing act between connecting the unconnected and to bring the futuristic 5G use cases to the region.

Many 5G use cases in the health, financial inclusion, and education space make the technology especially relevant to a developing and growing economy like Africa. It is a massive opportunity for the administration to circumvent the lack of physical infrastructure to extend the reach of these services.

The upcoming 5G technology offers a combination of extremely low latency and ultra-high-speed broadband enabling innovative use cases such as remote surgery, autonomous driving, augmented reality, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. African service providers have already started to explore the vast potential of 5G technologies.

Recently, Vodacom, the African arm of Vodafone, announced the launch of Africa’s first commercial 5G network in Lesotho, a tiny landlocked country in southern Africa. On the other hand, MTN has tied up with Ericsson and ZTE for the launch of 5G services in Africa.

Telesol, Ghana’s fastest growing service provider, has recently decided to use Parallel Wireless’ Converged Wireless System (CWS) and HetNet Gateway to provide 4G LTE connectivity in Ghana. The telco will be able to easily move to 5G when the market is ready for it. These initiatives pave the way for a more widespread and commercial launch of 5G in the continent.

Huge Digital Divide
Even as the telcos start their journey towards the commercial launch of 5G, it is essential to ensure that the unconnected are not left behind. Africa continues to be an under-penetrated telecom market, and the majority of its `connected’ population still uses the basic services. This is true for Nigeria even though the country is one of the biggest and the fastest growing telecom markets in Africa.

The Nigerian communications industry contributed 9.8% to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2016. At the end of 2017, the country boasted of 136.49 million mobile subscribers but even so, 30% of its population is still to benefit from connectivity.

Nigeria, like Africa, still remains mostly a 2G market with over 50% mobile subscribers using 2G network. At the same time, the gradual shift towards better network technology is happening fast. According to GSMA’s recent report on Mobile Economy 2017: Sub-Saharan Africa, 3G will remain the dominant mobile broadband technology for the foreseeable future, but the 4G adoption is rising rapidly following increasing network rollout.

Lower Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) and a high cost of smartphones in the rural areas, which largely remain unconnected, means that the return of investment is spread over a longer time for the telcos. At the same time, the service providers can hardly postpone the modernization to 5G as it is a more spectrally efficient technology and allows them to maximize the use of the available resources.

It is then understandable that the telcos are unsure whether they should invest in connecting the unconnected or to start modernizing the networks for 5G. The market is not yet developed for 4G or 5G, but at the same time, the telcos would want to secure their investments for future technologies as well.

The Virtualization Path
Innovative technologies, like virtualization, can help the telecom service providers in meeting the dual objectives of expanding reach in rural areas and also to secure their investments for futuristic technologies like 5G.

Virtualized 2G is easy to deploy, maintain and upgrade to the latest technologies. This allows the service providers to not only meet the present-day demand of their subscribers but to also move to newer technologies when the market is ready for it. This way the telcos don’t have to invest in traditional bulky 2G equipment which is tough to deploy, operate and maintain. Traditional equipment is hardware-centric and so occupies huge space and also consumes high energy. Virtualized 2G is software-centric and allows the service providers to address these challenges.

Basically, it leads to network simplification by virtualizing different technology network functionalities on one platform. Since the platform is software-based, the upgradation itself is easy and doesn’t even require a visit from site engineer. Further, the installation and maintenance of virtualized 2G is automated, which makes it easy to deploy and also to bring down the capital and operational expenditure for the service providers. It makes the network agile, flexible and easy to scale.

Virtualized 2G is part of Facebook-led Open RAN Telecom Infra Project (TIP) initiative to encourage innovation and adoption of open ecosystem in the telecom equipment space. Telefonica and Vodafone have adopted it, and MTN in Africa plans to benefit from using equipment based on TIP specifications. It empowers the telcos to expand in the rural areas by significantly bringing down the overall cost of deployment and management of the network.

This initiative brings down the cost of RAN by disaggregating the hardware and software components. It is a crucial step to bridge the digital divide. Further, it allows service providers to free up resources for testing and trial of future technologies like 5G.

Recently Ghana’s Telesol, has decided to leverage the benefit of virtualization by going for Parallel Wireless’ Open RAN solution. It consists of carrier-grade base station Converged Wireless System (CWS) and HetNet Gateway, which supports a much more cost-effective network in rural and other areas where ARPUs are on the lower side. It allows a quicker return on investment for the service providers.

Access to affordable broadband is essential to the growth of Africa’s economy. It not only opens up a host of global opportunities for the local businesses but also encourages collaboration across all segments of the society. Adoption of virtualized 2G by the service providers to expand in the rural areas and to prepare the networks for 5G technology can play a key role in bridging the digital divide and in benefiting the Nigerian economy.

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