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How is Safaricom's 5G journey fairing on? Here is the answer.

 Safaricom PLC made headlines in March 2021 when it became the first Kenyan Telco to launch 5G network making Kenya the second African country to switch to 5G after South Africa.

While launching the trial phase of the network, Safaricom announced that it was switching 5g network in parts of Nairobi, Kisumu, Kakamega and Kisii, with a televised 5g call between Kisumu and Kisii.

The Telco has also announced that it is planning to launch commercial 5G services in the country come 2022, and by then will have increased it's 5G base stations to between 150 and 200 across a number of Cities and towns in the country.

While this is no doubt a huge move that is highly awaited by many including myself, there's no doubt that commercial 5G connectivity might still take a number of years before it is actualized in many African countries, Kenya included. This is because of a number of challenges which I think even Governments and network operators are fully aware of but first;

What is 5G?

  • 5G is the 'fifth generation mobile network', the emidiate successor of 4G but much faster and with more applications than 4G.
  • It is believed that 5G can have speeds up to 10 Gps, many times faster than 4G. This can allow you download a full HD movie in less than 10 seconds. 
  • Unlike 4G which was mainly mobile phone based,  5G has lots of uses.

During it's inception, US and South Korea were on each other's case, each claiming to have been the first to launch 5G in the world and South Korea had to even push their launch date days ahead in order to ensure they launched before the US.
Both launched their commercial 5G network in April 2019, but 2 years down the line many people across the Globe are yet to enjoy the convenience of this super-fast network.
In the US, Verizon launched its 5G home service which could be accessed with a 5G enabled router in some cities including Houston and Los Angeles becoming the first to get connected. You can check out Verizon's 5g Home Internet plans.
This was April, and AT$T had controversially  gone ahead of them to launch a 5G network late 2018 via a mobile hot-spot, with some criticising them by equating AT$T to a runner who run back towards the starting line to claim victory.
In this race for 5G,  everyone didn't want to be left behind, including world leading technology providers, device manufactures and network providers.
During the mobile world Congress in Barcelona Spain on February 26, Rain, a South Africa data only network operator declared itself the first to launch 5G in South Africa.
In partnership with Huawei, Rain launched several 5G sites in Johannesburg using the 3.6 GHz band.
However, it is interesting to note that vodacom, the African unit of UK'S Vodafone launched Africa's first 5G network in May 2020.
Not wanting to be left behind, Safaricom PLC announced 5G availability in parts of Kenya under a test phase, something which was more of a pr stunt.
Apart from being in a 5G enabled Zone, one needs to have a 5G enabled device in order to use 5g.
Already a number of 5G enabled phones are available with various device manufactures in the rush to come up with more affordable 5G phones and devices though many are yet to sell in Kenya. This could however change once 5g becomes commercially available and we could see much cheaper 5g phones.
While launching their 5G, South Korea picked the new stylish Samsung Galaxy S10 5G as their flagship device, while US Verizon on their part settled for Leno's Moto Z3.
Already there are a wide range of 5g enabled phones in these countries with a number of network operators launching specially designed 5g hotspot plans.

So, Why is everyone on the rush for 5G
We cannot clearly pinpoint some of the reasons, or discuss them exclusively on this post, but according to my own observations, the following could possibly be the reasons why everyone wants to be ahead of the rest in the race for 5G technology.
  • As a show of might. Any country or technology firm that leads in rolling out a new technology usually becomes proud, and stamps their authority in the world as the tech leaders.
  • Economical reasons. According to the Global system for mobile communications in London, 5G related economic benefits is estimated to be worth USD 565 billion globally. Most of these will be generated out of mostly 5G related soft and hardware, including installation of base stations, 5G devices and bandwidth sales. Remember that 5G will require a lot much more base stations than 4G technology, and currently the only available 5G phones are high end phones which costs quite a fortune. The first to comfortably commercialize 5G will also have an opportunity to export their technology abroad especially to developing countries.
  • Unlike 4G, 5G is more focused on machines, and is expected to exponentially see the world of artificial intelligence grow. Think of smart cars, smart appliances smart homes, teleconference, communicating machines, smart healthcare and so on.
  • Due to it's reduced latency, 5G is expected to greatly influence the world of gaming and online streaming, as well as possibly result to new technology inventions.
  • Finally, according to my own observations, 5G is likely the last technology in terms of generations, as it operates at the highest possible frequencies of up to 300 GHZ. Above this frequency and we are at the infrared region. This is probably why every tech company is trying to make the best out of this region, before it also becomes saturated.
Is the 5G race Worth it?
Well, if you already have a 5G phone and in a 5G zone, you might have a totally different opinion than mine, but let me ask you; was the rush worth it?
Most probably no, coz your highly priced device might always be on LTE than 5G, especially if you travel a lot.
We wanted to get a detailed feedback from Safaricom concerning their 5G coverage, but unfortunately we didn't get much assistance.
However one of our readers was able to send us a screen shot of his phone with a 5G signal, but said that the signal was most of the times on and off probably since this is still the testing phase.
There are still a number of concerns I think should first be well looked into, 

High cost of 5g enabled devices.

During it's 5g launch in March, Safaricom announced that it was partnering with Nokia and Huawei for 5g infrastructure, and therefore Nokia and Huawei smartphones were among the first to be connected to 5g in the country. There were also other phones from other brands including Samsung which are already selling a number of 5G enabled devices in the country.

However most of these phones including Samsung Galaxy S20 and S21 series are way too expensive for many Kenyans who use phones largely below Ksh. 20,000 therefore they will automatically be locked out of 5G due to the high cost of enabled devices.

5G could considerably raise the cost of data bundles.

5G has much faster speeds, lower latency and greater capacity as compared to 4G, making it ideal for high quality video streaming, multiplayer gaming as well as smart home living. However this will greatly increase data demand this increasing your daily or monthly data usage.

The good news about this is that Safaricom are fully aware of the challenge and promised that once commercial 5G roll out is live, they will come up with new 5G data plans which are more affordable. The challenge will be on how they will ensure that these new data plans are only used by 5G users and not 4G or 3G browsing.

Concerns that 5G expansion could interfere with plane flight equipment.

Already there are new concerns in a number of countries including France and US that 5G expansion  which is critical to mass roll out could greatly interfere with some radio equipment in planes particularly the altimeters, a plane radio sensor used by pilots to know the height of the plane above ground this critical during landing.

The concerns largely arises because the 5g band-C which has frequencies of between 3.7-4.2Ghz is closely within the altimeter radio frequency of between 3.7-4.2Ghz.

These new concerns are likely to derail mass 5G roll out in many countries including Kenya, with At&t and Verizon expected to use this band early 2022.

Conclusion.

While Safaricom has been in the forefront of revolutionizing mobile broadband in the country, there are a number of concerns that should be first looked into before rolling out 5G in the country and in a number of other countries across the world including 5G  portability, the convenience of the mm waves and the price of 5G enabled phones and devices before declaring the world 5G ready.

Developing countries should at least wait until until at least mid 2022 when 5G will have been fully rolled out in countries like the US, Japan, Australia and in Europe.
By then, many challenges associated with early adoption will have been fully dealt with, the initial cost will have come down and many will be in a position to afford a 5G phone.
For now continue rolling out 3G and 4G and try to bring down the cost of data per mb to within reach of all customers.

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