Steve Song (*) -- 11-05-2020
Mobile phones and mobile networks are a modern technological miracle that have transformed telecommunications. This is a non-controversial statement. In economically poor countries, mobile phones have effectively replaced legacy copper infrastructure to become the default national telephone network infrastructure.
In Sub Saharan Africa, just having a phone number was, in many ways, itself a revolution, especially for the informal sector. A phone number is a business address. When written on a piece of cardboard along with a service offering and stuck to a lamp post, it is business advertising. Not to mention the host of knock-on benefits like helping people to manage and balance home and work life with limited resources. SMS messaging also emerged as an essential communication tool.
With each successive generation of mobile technology, new miracles appeared. Second generation or 2G mobile brought us limited amounts of data in addition to voice. Even that tiny amount of data opened up the possibility of the internet in places that would have seemed inconceivable only a few years before. When I worked at IDRC back in 2003, I can remember supporting a project to create a health information network in Uganda designed to facilitate the collection of data from rural health centres. It worked on a GPRS-based store and forward system, compressing and sharing data overnight when rates were cheaper. Tiny amounts of data can be extremely valuable. There is a parallel and equally important story that starts here about the evolution of mobile money services but I am choosing to focus on communication infrastructure in this piece.
Third generation or 3G mobile technology and its capacity for faster data speeds brought even more marvels or at least it did after the arrival of the smartphone in 2007. The combination of 3G mobile data and smartphones opened up what we now know as the mobile internet with its apps and services. This sparked a wave of innovation in the creation of software and services to address a completely new market. At this point smartphones were becoming as valuable (or more) for their data services as for traditional voice calling. But 3G had limitations. Not only were data speeds limited, in practice, to a very few megabits per second; but 3G also doesn’t scale well under load. As cell towers became crowded with users, 3G performance degraded significantly, reducing both coverage and performance. You can think of 3G as data bolted on to a traditional telecommunications network, with its dedicated circuits as opposed to the more nimble packet-switched technology that has underpinned the phenomenal growth of the internet.
Legacy circuit-switched networks were finally jettisoned with the arrival of the fourth generation of mobile technology. Also known as Long Term Evolution (LTE), 4G is the first generation of mobile technology that is fully digital in its architecture. 4G brought significantly faster speeds by making much more efficient use of available spectrum. It also brought a host of new radio frequencies that can be used to deliver services. In Europe and Africa, GSM started out with voice services in the 900MHz and 1800MHz bands. 3G brought with it the 2100MHz band. With LTE, there are now deployments in 700MHz, 800MHz, 2300MHz, 2500MHz, 2600MHz, and 3500MHz. In all there are more than 40 possible frequency bands designated for LTE. Not to mention the fact that, as 2G and 3G networks are retired, those frequencies are being re-used for 4G services . In general, communication regulators in Sub-Saharan Africa haven’t been as speedy as operators would have liked in releasing spectrum for 4G services. Most countries in the region still have hundreds of megahertz of spectrum for 4G services that has yet to be released.
4G technology cemented the role of mobile operators globally in the delivery of internet broadband. But just as 3G needed the smartphone to fully realise its utility, 4G broadband has only fully come into its own with the spread of streaming media in its many forms from user generated content on YouTube to live sports events to a whole new industry of streaming movie and television providers. Mobile broadband networks are challenging both terrestrial and satellite broadcast networks. The combination of apps, general internet access and streaming media has turned the 4G phone into an essential part of modern life.
4G technology continues to improve even as it gets less expensive. Improvements to the 4G standard, known as LTE Advanced, allows operators to combine spectrum frequencies to deliver higher broadband speeds. Meanwhile technology and manufacturing improvements have allowed more of the radio technology to be abstracted into software, making for cheaper and more flexible hardware.
With this incredible pedigree of generational change in mobile technologies, one might feel justified in holding one’s breath to see what new revolution was going to be unleashed with 5G. However, 5G technology is not so easy to explain. 4G technologies have already brought us pretty fast broadband. In order to improve on 4G, 5G must look elsewhere for its gains. As opposed to the tectonic changes we have seen with previous mobile generations, 5G relies on a wide variety of incremental technological changes to achieve improvements in network performance. These technological changes include the use of:
- mmWave radios which can transmit vast amounts of data but over much shorter distances than previous mobile network generations;
- small cells which increase spectral efficiency through frequency re-use;
- massive MIMO which groups large numbers of antennas at the transmitter and receiver to provide better throughput and better spectrum efficiency
- beamforming which leverages constructive interference to deliver more focused communication; and,
- full duplex technology which allows radios to receive and transmit information simultaneously.
- These various changes that 5G introduces are largely oriented towards providing extremely fast broadband (think gigabit speeds) at extremely low latency (think less than 5 ms) in urban areas.
It is worth remembering at this point that we ALREADY have very good broadband with 4G, not to mention excellent broadband in the form of fibre optic infrastructure and WiFi technologies. 5G promises to deliver fantastic wireless broadband which will be appreciated by a very narrow segment of existing power-users as well as an, as yet, completely imaginary set of industries from self-driving cars to remote surgery to virtual reality.
Yet, if we have learned anything about telecommunications from the current pandemic, it is that we can’t afford to have a partially connected society. Practising self-isolation in the current environment means that half of the world’s children may get access to education whereas the other half will be forced to rely on strategies that may put them at risk. Half of the world may have the opportunity to work remotely, or reinvent themselves digitally or reach out to others suffering similar challenges whereas the other half will not.
If we need to readjust our strategic priorities to focus on inclusivity and affordability, what does that tell us about 5G? The unfortunate truth is that, as currently conceived, 5G is simply not fit for purpose to achieve those ends. Looking at the hype around 5G feels a bit like the pharmaceutical industry where successful drugs whose patents are expiring are tweaked with minor improvements and re-patented to prevent the generic drug manufacturers from driving down prices. We are in a situation where the strategic focus of telecoms should be on “generic drugs” rather than brand new patents that only offer modest improvements on what is needed.
I am not a Luddite proposing to arrest technological development. I am simply suggesting that the most appropriate response to the pandemic by telecommunication ministries and regulators is a rebalancing of strategic goals away from the goal of ultra-low-latency, ultra-fast broadband, towards access and affordability for everyone.
5G is a narrative made up by manufacturers. The technologies that comprise it are not unique to 5G and can be applied individually or even in different realms such as WiF in unlicensed spectrum. An even worse narrative is the idea that 5G is the key to an economic war between the US and China, as if 5G were going to unlock some kind of utopian digital future. 5G is actively promoted by manufacturers, trade associations, management consulting companies, and lazy journalists who don’t read beyond press releases.
Some of the hype around 5G revolves around the money that will be generated through network sales and device sales. But where is that money going? It is certainly good news for manufacturers. McKinsey, a management consulting company, claims that the first wave of 5G deployments will cost between 700 and 900 billion dollars. For African countries, that is value extraction with a dubious return.
The issue of where value is created in telecommunications networks and who benefits is an absolutely critical issue. For 5G, manufacturers will certainly benefit. For 5G spectrum, many governments are planning to benefit from spectrum auctions but is where we should be looking for value? In a recent paper looking at the impact of COVID-19 on spectrum management, Tim Miller of Plum Consulting wrote:
One question the pandemic has reawakened is that of social value. Telecommunications are being revealed as an essential service, and access to broadband is vital for all members of society – the social benefit is increasingly important. However, social benefit is not taken into account by spectrum auctions and many spectrum management frameworks. Governments may be encouraged to consider if the social value of spectrum should be included within regulatory decisions – potentially leading to lower annual fees.
– Miller, T, The impact on spectrum awards of the Covid-19 pandemic. April 2020,
Reawakened is right. This is not new ground. The idea of a more human-centred approach to understanding economic value has been around since E.F. Schumacher wrote Small is Beautiful in 1972. More recently, economists like Mariana Mazzucato and Kate Raworth have brought new life to the field of economics by articulating holistic frameworks that embrace issues left out of the economic conversation ranging from environmental consequences to social equity. The principles they espouse, whether framed as doughnut economics or maximising stakeholder value, are long overdue for application to the telecommunications sector. The pandemic is a wake-up call that if we carry on as we have, the digital divide is only going to deepen; amplifying social and economic inequalities.
So, returning to Tim Miller’s quote above, he is absolutely on point but his point goes well beyond spectrum auctions to the sector as a whole. It becomes important to ask the question whether it is better to provide increasingly high speed services to those who already have (and can afford) access or to rather extend access at moderate speeds to all citizens. From a social benefit perspective, any reasonable analysis will conclude that connecting every citizen affordably to 4G networks is going to have a much bigger impact than investing in 5G networks that will serve a much smaller segment of the population.
Put simply, value lies in people. Connecting more people affordably to communication infrastructure will generate more value, both economic and social, than a world full of self-driving, high-speed trading, network sliced, artificially intelligent robots.
So What Is Our 5G Strategy?
Let’s go back to the pharmaceutical industry analogy. What we want is the telecommunications equivalent of generic drugs. We want to build telecommunications networks as affordably as possible. Happily, the mechanisms for this already exists in the technology world in the form of Open Standards and Open Source software. Even better, there are already significant efforts in this direction.
Open RAN (where RAN stands for Radio Access Network) is a movement to disaggregate software and hardware for mobile networks and create open interfaces between them. This move towards open standards for distinct elements of mobile network infrastructure has the potential to disrupt the integrated solutions supply chain dominated by Ericsson, Huawei, ZTE and Nokia, opening up competition by smaller manufacturers.
But that is only a first step. The fully digital nature of the 4G platform has made it easier to develop software operating systems for it. Several open software 4G platforms exist including Open5GS, Open Air Interface (OAI), NextEPC, srsLTE, as well as Facebook’s Magma project which is built on OAI. There is no reason that the core software running mobile telecommunications networks shouldn’t be treated as a public good commonly invested in by all.
Open Source operating systems like BSD (which underpins Apple’s computer hardware) and Linux (which is the underlying operating system for the majority of cloud services) have enabled both commercial success while at the same time enabling research and uptake by anyone with access to a computer. Open Source platforms are a tide that raises all ships.
The final step is democratising access to radio spectrum so that it stops being a barrier to both affordable access and competition, particularly in rural areas. This is not going to be a trivial task as operators that have invested millions of dollars in national spectrum licenses are going to be resistant to anyone paying less than they have for access to spectrum. There is no single answer to this problem but a host of smaller answers ranging from expanding license exempt frequencies to dynamic spectrum assignment to spectrum licenses specific to rural and underserved regions. My colleagues Carlos Rey-Moreno, Mike Jensen, and I have written a survey for the Internet Society of innovations in spectrum management that can serve as conversation starter for some of these changes.
The question on the minds of regulators and policy-makers should not be “When do we get to 5G?” but “When do we get to Open Standards and Open Source platforms for affordable access?” By abstracting radio hardware from software and embracing Open Standards and Open Source platforms, we can enable an affordable and organic transition to 5G, when and where it is appropriate, but devote the lion share of our energy to low-cost mobile platforms that serve broadband affordably to everyone. For the time being that is 4G. Indeed, recent tests of 5G vs WiFi in the United States and 5G vs 4G in South Africa suggest that 5G has some way to go before it outperforms either 4G or WiFi. In fact, WiFi may give 5G a run for its money for some time to come.
If my pharmaceutical industry metaphor didn’t work for you, think about the car industry. What we need now is the telecommunications equivalent of the Volkswagen Beetle: generic, affordable, repairable. Not the fastest vehicle on the road but one that will get everyone to work. With 5G, the 3GPP have built us a Formula One race car. A race car is not the vehicle that is going to get the economy back on its feet except perhaps the race car manufacturers. Have a look at the advertisement below for the Beetle from the 1960s and try to imagine a mobile manufacturer with a similar ad. It’s not impossible; it is just a question of priorities.
Postscript: if you haven’t watched the Wolf of Wall Street or Donnie Brasco, you may be bemused by the title of this article, the 5G Fugazi. Fugazi is a slang term for something that purports to be something it isn’t. The hype around 5G suggests that it will bring the same kind of profound societal enabling changes we saw with 2G, 3G, and 4G technologies. It won’t.
(*) Steve Song is a policy and regulation consultant with the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), a research associate with the Network Startup Resource Center (NSRC), and a part-time fellow at the Mozilla Foundation.