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Embracing 5G: Navigating Challenges, Opportunities In Nigeria’s Telecoms Landscape

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Sonny Aragba-Akpore
Sonny Aragba-Akpore

The digital era has brought remarkable transformations to various aspects of our lives and the telecommunications industry stands at the forefront of this revolution. In the dynamic world of telecommunications, the introduction of each new generation of technology has the potential to reshape economies, societies, and individual experiences. As we stand on the precipice of embracing the fifth generation technology (5G), Nigeria’s telecommunications landscape is at a critical juncture, marked by both challenges and opportunities.

Path to 5G: A Historical Perspective

Reflecting on the past two decades provides us with a perspective on the trajectory of Nigeria’s telecommunications evolution. The year 2001 marked a watershed moment as Digital Mobile Licenses (DML) were awarded, dismantling the notion that telecommunication was beyond the reach of the common man. In contrast, 2021 emerged as a year of renewed ambitions, characterised by the desire to further elevate Nigeria’s telecommunications prowess.

This resurgence of energy and vision culminated in the licensing of 5G technology, a leap forward with anticipated benefits that spanned economic growth, technological innovation, and improved connectivity. Notable operators, including MTN Nigeria, Mafab Communications and Airtel Nigeria, were poised to lead the nation into this new era.

5G Enigma: Promise, Reality

Amidst the excitement and promises surrounding 5G technology, a more nuanced narrative begins to emerge. Licenses were granted with fanfare and initial rollout timelines were set, but the journey toward realising the potential of 5G has proven to be complex and fraught with challenges.

MTN Nigeria, a stalwart in the telecommunications industry, embarked on the 5G journey with determination. The company activated hundreds of sites across major cities, reflecting its commitment to providing cutting-edge services. However, beneath the surface, the challenge of making 5G accessible to a broader population looms. While MTN’s strides are commendable, the lack of affordable 5G-compatible devices remains a roadblock, limiting the technology’s reach to a select few.

Airtel Nigeria, a late entrant into the 5G arena, came with promises of innovative services and enhanced user experiences. Its launch in multiple cities showcased its ambition to cover the entire country. Airtel’s introduction of a non-standalone version demonstrated its dedication to delivering superior service quality. Yet, the success of 5G hinges on accessibility, requiring subscribers to possess compatible devices and be within coverage areas. As the company strives to make 5G affordable through router offerings, the challenge remains to bridge the digital divide and ensure widespread adoption.

Mafab Communications, another licensee, embarked on a journey marked by uncertainties. Despite its ambitious aspirations, concerns about the company’s telecom infrastructure and subscriber base linger. A soft launch in early 2023 was followed by relative silence, prompting questions about the realisation of its 5G vision. Scepticism abounds, underscoring the delicate balance between ambition and implementation.

Navigating Challenges

Nigeria’s path toward embracing 5G technology is strewn with obstacles, yet these challenges present opportunities for growth and transformation. One glaring hurdle is the issue of the right of way (RoW). Delays caused by RoW disputes impede the expansion of necessary fibre infrastructure, inhibiting the realization of seamless connectivity. Nevertheless, the concerted efforts of the Federal Government to open up more states to RoW expansion signify progress. As more states recognise the economic benefits of improved connectivity, the barriers to expansion are gradually eroding.

Affordability remains a critical concern. The success of any technological innovation hinges on accessibility. The availability of affordable 5G-compatible devices is essential to democratizing access to this technology. Collaborative efforts between telecom operators and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to bring down device costs are encouraging. Ensuring that 5G does not remain confined to the elite but becomes accessible to a wider population is an imperative that must be pursued ardently.

The role of regulation in shaping the 5G landscape cannot be understated. Regulatory clarity, spectrum allocation, and deployment guidelines create the framework within which operators operate. As Nigeria seeks to fully harness the potential of 5G, a stable and enabling regulatory environment is paramount. Regulatory bodies must remain responsive to the evolving dynamics of the industry while fostering innovation and investment.

Promise of 5G: Transformative Possibilities

Amidst the challenges, the promise of 5G technology remains tantalisingly within reach. Airtel Nigeria’s CEO, Carl Cruz aptly characterised 5G as a “quantum leap from 4G”, heralding a new era of possibilities. The potential applications of 5G span far beyond faster downloads; they extend into realms of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), Internet of Things (IoT) and smart cities. These innovations have the potential to reshape industries, enhance public services and elevate the overall quality of life.

The educational sector stands to benefit immensely from 5G technology. Remote learning and digital classrooms could become more robust, fostering inclusivity and accessibility. Similarly, healthcare services could be revolutionised through telemedicine and remote diagnostics, bridging gaps in healthcare access and delivery. The agriculture sector could see increased efficiency through smart farming techniques, optimising crop yields and resource utilisation.

5G’s potential to stimulate economic growth is undeniable. The creation of new jobs, the establishment of innovative startups, and increased foreign investment are all within the realm of possibility. A vibrant 5G ecosystem has the power to position Nigeria as a hub of technological innovation and entrepreneurship on the global stage.

The Road Ahead: Collaborative Endeavours

Navigating the road to 5G requires collaborative endeavours from all stakeholders. Telecom operators, regulatory bodies, technology providers, OEMs, and the government must unite to overcome challenges and seize opportunities. Transparent communication, shared goals, and a commitment to inclusive growth will be the bedrock upon which Nigeria’s 5G future is built.

In light of global trends and the experiences of other nations, Nigeria’s journey with 5G is not unique. Other African countries have grappled with similar challenges and aspirations. While some countries have faced delays and obstacles, their experiences demonstrate that the path to 5G is a dynamic and evolving process.

In conclusion, embracing 5G technology is both a formidable challenge and an opportunity of unprecedented scale. As Nigeria navigates this landscape, it must balance ambition with practical implementation, ensuring that the benefits of 5G are felt by all segments of society. Regulatory frameworks must be adaptive, fostering innovation while safeguarding public interests. Ultimately, Nigeria’s embrace of 5G holds the potential to reshape industries, elevate lives and secure the nation’s place in the digital future.

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