Kathy Gibson is at Mobile World Congress 2019 in Barcelona – Huawei has reiterated how important the South African market is to the telecommunications and IT giant.
David Chen, vice-president: southern Africa region marketing and solutions sales department, says the country is of strategic importance as the leading African market.
“It is the biggest market in Africa, so we are paying a lot of attention to South Africa,” he says.
Evidence of this focus is the Huawei campus in Woodmead, and the number of resources that have been invested into the country.
When it comes to telecommunications, the country is not playing catch-up to more developed nations, he adds, pointing to the 5G network rollout that Huawei has announced with Rain.
“South Africa is up there with the developed countries,” he says. “We have 30 5G deployments worldwide, and have now signed the first one in Africa.”
In densely populated countries like South Korea and Japan, 5G’s primary use case will be mobile subscriptions, but the first South African rollout is more likely to be fixed wireless access.
“With the Rain implementation, the first application for 5G will be fixed wireless access and WTTx (wireless to the home or to the enterprise),” Chen says.
“In Africa, fibre resources are a bit behind compared to other countries so we don’t have a very good fibre infrastructure. This means the cost for fibre is more expensive for both carriers and consumers.”
“This is why we are deploying wireless solutions to solve the issue of access for households.”
WTTx currently runs on 4G and is already a popular solution in South Africa, Chen points out. Telkom alone has more than 1-million subscribers using WTTx.
“WTTx is strategic for Huawei in South Africa. Our wish is to bring digital to every person, and to see every home and organisation fully connected. In Africa, there are a lot of challenges that need to be overcome to bridge the digital divide.”
Currently, just 20% of South African households are connected; and fewer than 5% of households in Africa. “This is very low compared to other regions,” Chen says. “The reason is the cost of getting infrastructure to the villages is so high that most families cannot afford connectivity.”
Huawei’s WTTx solution provides broadband to the home in a much more affordable way than is possible with fibre, Chen adds.
“With WTTx, the cost for operates is at least halved, and end users are able to get broadband connectivity for about 30% of the cost of fibre.”
WTTx is just one part of the solution, however, rolling out base stations into underserviced areas is a massive undertaking, and one that Huawei is addressing with its RuralStar system.
“Getting rural areas connected is a big issue for Huawei, and we have brought a number of technical solutions to market – that is our advantage: that we are a technology company.”
Huawei’s RuralStar base stations have been rolled out in Ghana and are being piloted by MTN in South Africa.
Chen explains that RuralStar can provide connectivity for both voice and mobile broadband, and WTTx takes the solution further to the end user.
Technology is just one part of providing connectivity solutions, he adds. Organisations like Huawei have a responsibility to help bring all the stakeholders together: governments, third-party organisations, operators and device manufacturers.
“All these stakeholders have to come together in order to move the industry forward,” he says. “It’s not just about technology innovation: that is just the first step. We also have to work together.”
Skills development is another crucial element, Chen adds. “Lots of people don’t know how to use the Internet, so we do training to improve literacy in the market. In every country we operate in, we have a plan for IT literacy and give training in schools to improve the reach of IT knowledge throughout the population.”
Chen points out that, while broadband penetration in South Africa is much higher than in the rest of Africa at 20% of households, there is still a lot of room for improvement.
“5G will take some time to roll out,” he points out. “This is why are working with operators on 4.5G, making the network ready for 5G. For instance our M-MIMO solutions let customer get the same experience as 5G, but on a 4G network. These technologies extend the capacity of the 4G networks and also go some way to mitigating the lack of spectrum.”
This is important, Chen adds, since 4G is still the mainstream, and for the next few years will co-exist with 5G rollouts.