In this interview, the Vice President at Ericsson Middle East and Africa, Hossam Kandeel, speaks to Temitayo Jaiyeola about Nigeria’s telecom development and the potential of 5G in the country

What growth stage is the Nigerian ICT sector?

I think Nigeria is an extremely important market in Sub-Saharan Africa and it sits on a lot of capabilities, i.e., people or resources. The ICT industry is a big enabler of the development of the economy and the power of the people to help themselves learn.

I am happy that Nigeria launched 5G last September, and this is an important milestone towards further enabling the digitisation of the economy. The country also has a lot of mobile wallet applications and providers in the economy. The country’s ICT sector is at a very developed stage, but ICT is a never-ending ambition. So, looking at the scale of Nigeria, it can only look for an even further developed future.

Ericsson is one of the strategic partners of telcos in the country. What would you say about our telecoms network capability, and what can be done better?

There is always a kind of catch-up situation with networks, and it is not only in Nigeria. It is global. There is one dimension which is coverage, i.e., to make sure that at least the network is available in most of the country or where people are residing whether they are rural or inside buildings, because you can have good coverage outside buildings but not inside.

The most important thing is that you have proper coverage. And then the second step is that you have the proper capabilities of the network so that you achieve the type of application that you want to run. So, if you are texting, you might need certain capabilities within the network, which is very different if you want to stream a video, which might also be a different capability if you want to perform remote surgery. These are different capabilities depending on the type of network, and the more networks get utilised, the more important it is for network providers to continue to develop the network.

Because even if at a point in time, the network gets stable and good enough and is left alone, there is a chance that increasing usage on the side of the subscriber will push the network to a point where it would feel as though it is not good enough, and signal coverage and capability to run applications will drop.

But also, Nigeria is doing a lot of things other nations are struggling with. The country is taking the bold step of rolling out. And that is a good thing. But of course, from a coverage and rollout perspective and so forth, there is still a lot that must be done, especially when it comes to rural coverage.

What would become of the other generations of networks in the country, considering your recent mobility report stated that 4G will continue to be the dominant technology for a while?

Technologies are generally not in competition with each other. It is exactly like garments. If I am going out for sports, I would put on a certain outfit. When I am going out dining, I will put on another outfit. So, 5G itself has use cases where it makes sense and other use cases where it might be too much. What we are seeing is that for example, for fixed wireless access users, which is like users who are based in a home or business environment, where they lack connectivity and they have a vast demand for high-speed internet access. The speeds they need are beyond 4G. In this situation, 5G becomes a nice complement to 4G. This means that 5G would be using the spectrum resources in a much more efficient manner. This is one type of use case. Another use case can be, for example, that is not a small society, the society of gamers, people who do gaming. For them, lead time is of extreme importance and 5G will ensure that the delay in transmission is minimal, enabling a great gaming experience for them.

There are other industrial activities that are not yet here in Nigeria, but we hopefully should be pushing towards that, for example, connected ports, connected factories, and more. The performance of them might require a technology that is suitable for such a use case which can be close to 5G. Meanwhile, for regular subscribers, who want to take calls, connect with teams on a conference call, download or stream videos from YouTube, 4G is good enough.

The likes of 2G or 3G were restrictive in what they could do. Those two technologies are more on the downscale and 4G and 5G are more on the upscale.

What also is a big influence in this equation is the availability of handsets. Now, we are seeing that there would be an increase in the number of handsets that would be supporting 5G. Once new models from leading manufacturers like Apple or Samsung or others get into the market, penetration will increase.

This will boost the uptake the handsets. Also, there would be more efficient providers. I would say that technologies are complementing each other, but we see a bigger trend towards 4G and 5G over the next 10 years to come of course.

How will 5G accelerate the connected cities and devices in Nigeria?

One of 5G’s biggest advantages is that it is a technology that is created to connect things, not only individuals. So, the scale of devices that can be supported is for the new eras to come. Something also important apart from enabling IoT and devices is enabling people who innovate. 5G will help people who develop and come up with ideas to have the right network to craft new startups, programs, and applications. People will use the network resources and connectivity to further empower themselves. This will increase accessibility in societies and lead to further development in the economy.

I think empowering people is one of the very important attributes of 5G, because it opens the possibilities of people to do things not just for the mainstream. It opens more ecosystems within society.

Smartphone penetration is still low. And a lot of network expansion is dependent on it. How can smartphone penetration be improved in Nigeria and Africa? 

Network providers have been adopting different strategies and mechanisms. Some countries play host to factories that develop or manufacture devices locally. Sometimes, they do not see the scale and they shift to the importation of these devices from competitive countries that provide devices at a good price point and proper scale. What they do is treat the importation as a commercial agreement. So, the devices are sourced at very competitive price levels at good volumes.

The bottom line is that there are different strategies, but the most important thing is that we must be aware of the challenges of each economy. So many countries, including Nigeria, have been struggling economically in the past couple of years. Individuals are struggling because the economy is harsh. People are adjusting to this reality. Affordability is largely dependent on the people factor.

Also, another thing affecting penetration despite the low prices of devices is the lack of digital education, illiteracy. When we train people on how to use this device since smartphones are all about content, penetration increases. For instance, from Ericsson’s side, we have initiated an Ericsson educate programme and we partner with our customers to launch this type of programme with the objective of educating more people on how to use technology. Education is key. It goes hand and hand with adoption.

What investments is Ericsson making on the continent?

Our role is not limited to only pushing equipment to our partners. We try as much as possible to invest a lot within the head office, within our different calls of research and development to craft an idea of how we see the industry evolving towards the future.

We also try to better how societies and economies can get the best use of the ICT and telecom industry and how much we can even enable youth entrepreneurs to be able to become more innovative. We try to come up with that kind of thinking and push that forward. In countries where we operate, we put out competitions for innovation, and train new university graduates on the new realities of the ICT space. We also try to help them understand what working in a big telecom environment can be like and then open possibilities of employment for them. We try as much as possible to be a very value-adding member of the ecosystem and even reach out to governments, and policymakers in the 134 countries we are present in.  We try to carry all our experiences around, to help governments create ICT solutions.

Your mobility report also highlighted that video streaming is driving the demand for the Internet on the continent and beyond. What other trends do you think will continue to drive demand for Internet services?

I can remember back in 2007, the Ericsson strategy team were talking at that time about how video was going to change the face of data consumption. At the time, video consumption wasn’t very great, but it was picking up. Now we can see how much video is really changing the face of data consumption.

However, with the advent of 5G and with the spectrum enabling so many applications, there would be an increase in the need for data. I would say new data consumption would be driven by extended reality kind of applications. Remote engagements will enable professionals to be very efficient in the way that they attend to people whether in remote areas or even in other countries and contribute their critical quota as though they are on-site. These demands for so much data transfer, to make these applications as real-time as possible will drive data traffic. So, I would say more real-time extended reality kind of applications will be the next thing and we are still not seeing it as much as back in 2006-2007, when we were not seeing video so much. But it is the next data consumption driver.

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