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Waiting for 5G: what can you do with wireless now?

Staff Writer's picture

This article was originally published on IT-Online

The global 5G rollout has begun, with providers in the US and UK loudly announcing the first limited service availability, writes Mervyn Byleveldt, solutions sales manager: Africa at Cradlepoint.

With many more countries expected to follow in 2020, it looks like it will be the technology’s breakthrough year across the major domestic markets in North America, Europe and Asia.

In South Africa, the timetable is a little different. While MTN and Ericsson recently completed the country’s first demonstration of 5G technology – a live feed from a car in Pretoria – South Africa is on “a long road” to 5G . But, despite national variations in readiness and progress, 5G is a global technology movement and we’re all on a pathway to general availability – sooner or later.

Given South Africa is much closer to the start of that journey than the end, however, how can businesses use today’s mobile technologies to benefit from high-speed wireless connectivity

The 4G success story is not over yet

To understand that, we need to look towards 4G LTE networks. A global success story, 4G is a familiar and trusted technology that’s enabled people worldwide to work, relax and connect in ways that could not have been possible in the legacy 3G world.

As mobile Internet speeds have increased, so too have the number of people adopting connectivity-driven smartphones. The number of smartphone connections in Africa is forecast to double from 315-million to 636-million by 2022 – twice the projected number in North America and close to the European total.

At the same time, mobile data traffic across the continent is predicted to increase seven-fold.

While 5G has been capturing recent media attention, 4G LTE has been steadily evolving to connect faster than ever before. It has played a pivotal role in creating entirely new digital industries, such as social media, while providing the likes of Uber with the means to disrupt traditional markets.

Demand for mobile Internet connectivity has has soared in Africa over recent years and has been central to the development of many industrires, including Africa’s financial services sector.

Thanks to 4G, there are more than 122-million active users of mobile financial services in Africa – now the global leader in mobile money.

Sudhir Juggernath, head of Orange applications for business: Africa, recently explained that the quick transition from 3G to 4G was a direct consequence of the increasing demand for mobile data, as “fibre and other forms of connectivity are limited or non-existent in major parts on the African contintent”. Juggernath conceded, however, that “South Africa will only leverage the 5G network in the next two to three years.

But before 5G arrives on the African continent, development in 4G will continue apace. The speed and coverage of 4G networks in South Africa is fast increasing, with the country’s fastest 4G mobile network operator, Vodacom, recently exceeding 80% population coverage.

The next stage will see the high-performance, Gigabit-Class form of 4G LTE come to market, offering theoretical speeds – as its name suggests – of up to 1Gbps.

Gigabit-Class LTE leverages many of the same technologies that are forming the foundation of 5G, and in countries where Gigabit LTE is already available, carriers such as AT&T in the US have looked to capitalise on its impressive performance by branding their upgraded Gigabit-Class LTE network as ‘5G Evolution’ or ‘5GE’.

The resulting controversy has ended up going through the courts.

But, putting those complexities to one side, it’s more immediately relevant to examine what Gigabit-Class LTE can offer today, because it will arrive in South Africa much sooner than 5G.

The simple message is that for organisations that want to extend the reach, reliability, and speed of their enterprise branch networks, without all of the complexity challenges of traditional wired connections, Gigabit-Class LTE will provide as much as 80% of the value of 5G.

The missing link: no overage data plans

The key tenant for many businesses in moving more of their operations from wired to mobile connectivity options is the availability of unlimited, ‘no overage’ data plans.

These data plans are beginning to appear on the South African market, and in other countries have represented the ‘missing link’ for many organisations that have been thinking about replacing wired access links for wireless at their branch locations.

LTE has already carved a valuable role as the go-to connection for failover and Day-1 connectivity, but without the historical fears associated with expensive overage charges, it’s now a viable option for primary WAN connectivity as well.

This allows organisations to ‘cut the cord’ and replace multiple cable and DSL providers – often stitched together to provide a branch network – with just one or two wireless providers. In doing so, they can also realise a significant improvement in WAN uptime.

Similarly, wireless edge routers designed to provide a ‘Pathway to 5G’ will enable enterprises to take advantage of LTE, Gigabit-Class LTE, and 5G when and where it arrives at branch locations. They can do this, and work seamlessly with existing infrastucture, without disruptive or costly upgrades.

In South Africa, where businesses of all sizes have struggled with a variety of issues frustrating the availability of reliable wired connectivity, this is a game changer.

On the road to a wireless future

If we look back at what history tells us about the emergence of wireless technologies; whenever the performance and economics of wireless converge with a wired alternative, wireless always wins. That moment is about to arrive in the wide area networking (WAN) space.

It’s a pattern that repeats; in many households and businesses, cordless phones have pretty much killed off corded ones, and for many the home phone has been replaced altogether by a mobile.

More recently, wireless speakers and Bluetooth headsets have been displacing the traditional and more awkward wired options. And, in the office and public spaces, wireless LANs usurped wired Ethernet more than a decade ago.

What this indicates is that when it arrives, 5G will deliver the biggest communications transformation since the Internet. But on this somewhat drawn-out journey to a faster future, the availability of Gigabit-Class LTE will deliver much of the value that most enterprises in South Africa want today – a high performance and widely available wireless connection.

For anyone building a wireless edge strategy, being on that pathway to 5G will help ensure they are ready for the future.

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