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BusinessDay: Will SA be colonised again when 5G spreads up north?

By Johan Steyn, 8 February 2022

The fifth generation of mobile networks (5G) has been a controversial issue. Ask the average fake-news consumer — well most people, if you think of it — and you will hear opinionated views about a new world order, societal control, or even the mechanism for the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

The local cellular phone tower has become the embodiment of control over us mortals, a strange-looking edifice towering over our everyday lives. Some have even undertaken the destruction of these alien structures in a futile effort to regain control and normalcy in a world gone mad.

Resisting technological advances is the story of human society. In the 19th century, many believed that a train travelled fast enough to rip the human body to shreds. The introduction of the telegraph made some believe it would ruin the English language and destroy the art of writing poetry. In the same era, some believed the newly invented telephone would help us communicate with the dead.

With the invention of the wireless — or the radio as we know it — it was claimed it added a menace to the world and would do no good. The introduction of television introduced a fear that book sales would plummet as most people would stop reading.

The latest standard of mobile connectivity permits the creation of a new type of network capable of connecting nearly everyone and everything, including machines, objects and gadgets. Intended to provide improved peak data speeds, ultra-low latency, increased dependability, huge network capacity and increased availability, it will provide a more consistent user experience to an unimaginably worldwide number of users.

Numerous industry experts have predicted that the 5G network will be as transformative as the printing press, automobile and electricity. According to some, it will serve as a catalyst for the next industrial revolution.

Many business and technology leaders underestimate 5G’s disruptive potential. Telecommunications, health care, manufacturing, retail, transportation and agriculture are frequently identified as industries that will be most affected by it.

While some businesses are using virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), data-intensive applications have not yet realised their full potential. Additionally, enhanced VR and AR capabilities will enable increased on-the-job performance. Consider a less-skilled employee who is electronically connected to a distant headquarters site by a mentor who offers them 3-D virtual instruction to finish a job without them needing to meet in person.

Since the beginning of 2019, the number of operational 5G networks has expanded dramatically, with more than 50 operators projected to offer 5G services in approximately 30 countries by the end of 2021. With global job growth of 22.8-million expected over the next 15 years due to 5G-enabled networks, it is one of the significant trends shaping the ICT industry in 2021.

The difficulty for SA networks will be gaining access to the 5G spectrum to supply digital services to an ever-increasing populace. Connectivity to data, and cheap and easy access to a world of ever-increasing information, is key to our future workforce.

Our country lacks the ability to produce affordable smart devices and cellular technology that will be the lifeblood of the 5G era. I wonder if the looming avalanche of new cellular technologies will enable foreign providers and their workers to increase their digital colonialisation and expand the beachhead on local skills displacement already in accelerated progress.

• Steyn is chair of the special interest group on artificial intelligence and robotics with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals of SA.


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