Kathy Gibson is at AfricaCom 2019 in Cape Town – If we agree that digital connectivity is vital for economic growth, government and industry needs to work together on several fronts.

The licensing of spectrum is going to be a key driver for the future of telecommunications, but widespread connectivity and true economic impact will require more than simply that.

Stella Ndabeni-Abrhams, minister of telecommunications and postal services for South Africa, points out that government and the private sector need to work together to connect currently unconnected citizens.

She adds that the process of allocating spectrum is now underway and that industry must start thinking about how they will use it to increase connectivity.

“Regarding spectrum, that is the responsibility of the authority [Independent Communications Authority of SA – Icasa],” she says. “They have issued their memorandum and invited industry to give their inputs.”

Government has decided that – unlike the case with 4G – there will be no delay in licensing 5G. “It is one of the key enablers that we want to utilise to change the economy,” Ndabeni-Abrahams says.

There will be obligations associated with licences, she adds, and there will almost certainly be wireless open access network (WOAN) in the mix as well.

Nic Rudnick, CEO of Liquid Telecom, agrees that spectrum alone is not the full answer to creating a digital economy.

“There are a number of elements that come into the picture of delivering digital services. I wonder if the release of spectrum will have the desired result, or if it will just increase the quality and speed of services to those already receiving it.”

Coverage on its own won’t solve the issue of digital usage, he believes, because the problem is largely one of affordability.

Part of the problem, Rudnick says, is that mobile operators adhere to the pay-as-you-go model – and many people are simply unable to afford these services.

Instead, he thinks new technology like optical transmission can be used to bring the advantages of an installed fibre backhaul to many more people.

Liquid Telecom has completed its goal of connecting Africa north to south with its Cape to Cairo network, and is now working on east-west connectivity, connecting the east coast of Africa to the west coast with a high capacity fibre network. This will be used to transmit traffic from Asia to the Americas.

“Africa has always been inward looking with telecommunications services to itself,” says Rudnick. “We are now able to look at what services we can provide to the rest of the world. From being a consumer of capacity and technology, we see this as being one of the big initiatives for Africa to provide services to the rest of the world.”

Nicholas Naidu, managing executive: technology strategy, architecture and innovation at Vodacom, agrees that there are many areas to consider when it comes to mass connectivity.

But spectrum remains one of the biggest, he adds, and contributes arguably the most in terms of cost to telcos.

“We are presented with unique challenges in South Africa,” Naidu says. “We have huge issues around penetration: only 43% of the population is connected, and only 23% are using mobile Internet.”

In a bid to reduce the cost of building networks, Vodacom is conducting OpenRAN pilot projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

OpenRAN is an open architecture that decouples hardware and software, which should reduce the cost of deploying networks – particularly those in rural areas.

The telco has also launched an R299 4G smart feature phone, which it believes is the cheapest on the continent.

Services will drive network adoption, Naidu adds. He points to the example of M-Pesa which currently boasts 36-million customers and half of Kenya’s GDP.

Other services that Vodacom offers aim to improve agriculture and education.

“We have connected 3 000 schools, zero-rated portals for 19 universities, trained thousands of teachers and have unlimited free education content for students who have access to the full curriculum from Grade 0 to Grade 12,” Naidu points out.

While government will help telcos to build their networks by licensing 5G spectrum, Naidu believes it can do more.

“Spectrum is the biggest input cost in our business, so spectrum availability will make it easier for us to provide connectivity.

“But there are other things government can do, like waiving import duties or VAT on smartphones, which will help with adoption.”