Kathy Gibson is at AfricaCom 2019 in Cape Town – Government has a massive role to play in creating the environment where high-performing telecommunications infrastructures can help to develop business and society as a whole.

Paul Scanlan, chief technology officer of the Carrier Business Group at Huawei Technologies, points out that 4G and 5G both have the potential to drive a more inclusive digital society – but there are some challenges that need to be overcome.

“2G and 3G have some effect on digital enablement, but if you want to take advantage of what you can do with a smartphone, you need 4G or even 5G for maximum impact.”

This means we need to get 4G handsets into markets that are currently using 2G or 3G phones.

This issue is by no means unique to Africa, Scanlan adds. “Europe has a similar problem with 5G coverage.”

What countries need to do is to visualise where they want to be – and what technologies are needed to help get them there.

“You need the use cases – and these may not apply everywhere, because economies are all different,” Scanlan says. “But you need to start out by understanding what 4G and 5G can do to enable a digital economy.

“Then you need to work backwards: look at where you are today and where you want to be; then figure out what you need to do to get there.”

Government policies will be key, he adds. “Some years ago, Rwanda and five of its neighbours had roaming agreements – this was years ahead of any other countries.

“It just shows that you can do things if you have the political will.”

In some countries, the solution may be to leapfrog straight into 5G, or steady migration may be a better solution. But either way, government policies have to create an enabling environment, Scanlan says.

“If governments charge too much for spectrum, the money for other network development could be used up. If too little spectrum is released, this could stymie the benefits to consumers. If it takes too long to get site approvals, you could inhibit roll-out. If you charge too much on handset taxation, you limit uptake.”

Taxation is something the governments could use to stimulate digital access, Scanlan points out. “An entry-level handset costs $20 in China – you need to get it into the hands of people in Africa for $22 – not the $70 or more that it costs now.

“To do this you need to have the right policies in place.”

Goverments have a mandate to enable better services to all citizens, but they can’t forget that the telcos are commercial companies that need to make revenue.

“You have to find a way to bridge that gap. A company like Huawei tries to do this by showing governments and telcos use cases and trying to bring the two players together.”

Scanlan points out that close collaboration between government and industry has been a successful formula in the Chinese market.

“I was in Latin America recently and the government decided that it would drop the price of spectrum, but the operators had to connect 10 000 villages in return.

“The government understands that if we can connect everyone we can stimulate the economy.”

Education and literacy skills will also help to develop digital economies in Africa.

“A lot of Africans are still using 2G and 3G handsets,” Scanlan says. “How can I incentivise you to move to a 4G handest? To start with, people need to know how to use it.”