Prof Marwala

Fifth-generation (5G) technology is not something sinister as some conspiracy theorists may have people believe, but is the progression of current technologies as societies increasingly go mobile and consume more data.

This is word from Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, vice-chancellor (VC) and principal of the University of Johannesburg, taking to his Facebook page to address some of the myths linking 5G to the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Campaigns spreading dangerous myths linking 5G to the outbreak of COVID-19 have gone viral on social media platforms, with the latest being a local councillor sharing falsehoods about the next-generation 5G technologies.

Marwala, who also serves as deputy chair of the Presidential Commission on the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), stresses it is imperative to embrace and adopt 5G because it is going to be the bedrock of the economy of the 21st century.

“5G technology offers outstanding network performance, but is it dangerous?” he asks. “Some conspiracy theorists are linking 5G to the coronavirus. There is no causal connection between 5G technology and any biological virus, including COVID-19.”

In SA, mobile network operators Vodacom, MTN and Rain have, in recent months, started to deploy commercial 5G networks in some parts of the country.

However, to understand 5G technology, one must understand previous generations of mobile services that preceded it, according to the VC.

He explains that first was the first generation (1G) technology, which was when we started communicating with each other using only voice. This was then followed by the second generation (2G) technology, which included text messages to voice cellular communication.

Throughout 1G to 4G, Africa has merely been a spectator and customer. If we are not careful with 5G, we risk being spectators once again, but this time, we may not even be customers.

The third generation (3G) technology allowed for people to surf the Internet and to send some pictures in addition to voice and text.

Then it was the fourth generation (4G) technology, which was a faster version of 3G, giving users the ability to download a movie in six hours, for instance. 5G technology is an evolution of this.

“It will be so fast that it will take six seconds to download a movie,” states Marwala, adding that it [5G] is going to transform communication fundamentally. For example, surgeons will be able to use robotics to perform surgeries on the other side of the world because the reaction time is going to be very quick. Self-driving cars are going to be more common and car accidents will be fewer and fewer, he notes.

Spectrum conundrum

Marwala points out the country’s digital migration project is essential to liberate spectrum for 5G spectrum allocation.

South Africa’s Broadcasting Digital Migration (BDM) programme has been in the making for over a decade, with the goal posts constantly shifting.

Digital migration of TV signals from analogue to digital will result in more efficient use of signals, freeing up large segments of spectrum for Internet access.

The Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) has promised it will auction the much-needed high-demand spectrum by March next year. Among the spectrum frequencies it wants to auction are the 700MHz and 800MHz bands, which are currently occupied by the much-delayed digital migration.

“No spectrum has been awarded in the last 15 years, which has made it very difficult to allocate spectrum for 5G,” says the UJ VC. “Last year, the minister of communications and digital technologies Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams issued policy directives intended to ensure that the new spectrum will be released.”

As SA and the rest of the continent begin to consider 5G, Marwala says it is essential to understand what is happening globally.

“The most prominent global countries in 5G are China and the USA. These two countries are battling it out in a cold war over the control of 5G. So far, China has emerged as the frontrunner.

“Throughout 1G to 4G, Africa has merely been a spectator and a customer. If we are not careful with 5G, we risk being spectators once again, but this time, we may not even be customers. This is because a certain level of infrastructure is required for 5G.”

To solve this conundrum, the professor advises educating people across the board to understand the link between international relations and technology and use that to position South Africa strategically.

“On the one hand, this will entail attracting more people to universities to understand complex concepts that are relevant to 5G. On the other hand, it will also call for our people to go out into the world to learn about how other nations are educating and developing new technologies.

“The outcome, of course, is that our participation in global affairs should see us get a piece of the cake that has already been shared among other nations. We cannot afford, as the African continent, to receive the crumbs of technological developments or to be spectators in this development,” Marwala concludes.

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