Aimed at unpacking the myths, dispelling misinformation and showing how the technology can benefit South Africa in creating a more just and equal society were among the major themes during a webinar last week in which delegates were told that much work has to be done to ensure 5G becomes ubiquitous for Africans.
While job creation and growing the economy underpinned deliberations, the webinar took place amid global hysteria over 5G and its perceived harmful effects. Speakers told participants at the webinar that 5G remains a central issue for the entire globe but in South Africa it’s critical because of the centrality of technology in the country’s development path.
Focusing on the role of 5G in building the South African developmental state, new infrastructure and a new economy, the webinar explored several themes about how the benefits could reach the majority beyond the monopolies, helping small-to-medium enterprises and promoting upliftment in line with the goals of the National Development Plan.
Founder and president of Progressive Blacks in ICT, Leon Rolls says in its present form, 5G is removed from its stated goal of benefiting all “our people” and that government is caught in the middle as the regulators seem to be acting as a “firewall”, preventing people from enjoying the true benefits. He has called for transformation to speedily bring about change in the sector.
Referring to the current moratorium on individual licences, Rolls believes this stance ensures that black South African women, youth or entrepreneurs with disabilities continue to miss out on opportunities associated with 5G, which he estimates at currently sitting around R600 billion.
Yet, South Africa is ready to reap the rewards, according to moves in April 2020 by the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa), to approve the temporary allocation of high-value 4G and 5G spectrum frequencies to mobile operators to meet increased traffic on their networks, and to assist with increased demand by consumers of spectrum due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Several operators, including the country’s largest operator, MTN, biggest mobile network operator, Vodacom, fixed-line and broadband operator Liquid Telecom and Rain SA, in which billionaire businessman Patrice Motsepe’s African Rainbow Capital holds a 20% stake, have already rolled out non-stand-alone and commercial-stand-alone 5G in South Africa.
Regulation in the pipeline includes an Icasa position paper on cybersecurity on which it will seek the wisdom of the International Telecommunication Union, while Communications and Digital Technologies Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams is currently considering public comments around new policy to speed up 5G on the deployment of communications networks in the country.
In readiness for 5G, MTN has launched its network in South Africa, with the deployment of 100 5G sites in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Bloemfontein; while Vodacom, which received temporary spectrum from Icasa, launched a 5G mobile network and entered into a roaming agreement with Liquid Telecom, which is building its own network. Rain already provides 5G data services to its customers in major centres and has a roaming agreement with Vodacom. But state utility Telkom has thrown its toys out of the cot, claiming that the partnership between Vodacom and Rain is akin to a merger, challenging this arrangement in court.
Increasingly, though, the noise has become louder about the unproven harmful effects of 5G. Yet, according to technology expert Steven Ambrose, 5G is similar to existing 4G by operating in South Africa in the 2.3 GHz to 3.5 GHz low-band frequency range. All these frequencies, including those used by 5G, are non-ionising radiation, unlike X-rays, and therefore, highly unlikely to pose health risks but will benefit consumers with higher speed and capacity. “People had similar complaints in the past about 4G, 3G, 2G, and there is still no scientific evidence to support any claims. If 4G did not make you grow wings, 5G isn’t going to be the one that does,” Ambrose says.
Premier of Gauteng David Makhura, speaking on March 10 at the Huawei-Gauteng e-Government 4IR Talent Development Graduation Ceremony in Johannesburg, welcomed the efforts to empower young people who will “take a giant leap into the future”. In readiness for 5G and the 4IR, Makhura says he is grateful that Huawei has partnered to invest in skills development. “We need more young people trained in the coming five years,” he adds.
Experts, however, point to work that must be done to counter the techno-sceptics operating on the fringes of the socio-political spectrum, including the US, which continues to attack Huawei despite its status as a pioneering leader in 5G technology.
Some argue that this was a ploy to delegitimise Huawei as a major player, fuelling the perception that it was an extension of the Chinese Communist Party with a nefarious agenda. Another claim revolves around an unproven conspiracy that Covid-19, which originated in China, was consciously unleashed on the world. Coincidentally, 5G and Covid-19, arrived when some Western governments were actively mobilising against Huawei as a dominant player in the 5G market globally.
Amid 5G fears, the voices of reason have struggled for attention. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria says there is no credible scientific evidence showing any link between the Sars-CoV-2 virus and radiation from a cellphone or its transmission with radiation.
According to an EU task team tracking disinformation campaigns, “some state and state-backed actors seek to exploit the public health crisis to advance geopolitical interests”. Instead of the predicted harm, the EU, sees 5G providing ubiquitous, ultra-high bandwidth and low-latency “connectivity”, not only to individual users but to connected objects, becoming the “eyes and ears” of artificial intelligence systems – and making a tangible difference in South Africa and the African continent.
Therefore, citizens must question the origins of the 5G disinformation campaign which seems to emanate from US right-wing elements who claim it poses a threat to the health of South Africans and democracy. The campaign will lose its traction, however, once South Africans are able to share in the 5G bonanza.
* Edwin Naidu is a freelancer who writes for the Wits Justice Project, among other publications