The promise of 5G: Digital divide or development pathway?
Mark Roden is the founder and chief executive officer at mobile top-up company, Ding
‘Limitless connectivity’ was to be celebrated and discussed on many panels at the Mobile World Congress in February before it was cancelled due to the spread of COVID-19. The phrase is an apt description of the advances 5G technologies are bringing – including revolutionising the way we live, the way we work and the way we will relate to one another in the future.
Billions of people are already connected by mobile devices; and when this is multiplied by the speed of breakthroughs in emerging technologies means that 5G is perceived by some as the promise of a utopian future. Others see it as part of a dystopian future. To date, those who have gained most from mobile connectivity have been consumers able to afford it. However, 5G is not going to be available for most of the world’s population for a long time. For example, those living in sub-Saharan Africa only regularly access 2G, so access to 5G is not something they think about often.
So, will this ‘limitless connectivity’ create a digital dividend or a digital divide? We are all connected and we all have smartphones, but soon there will be a digital divide between the countries that have 5G and those that do not. The percentage of the population of the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) that are not covered by a mobile broadband network fell by more than half to 11 per cent between 2014 and 2018. Nearly half of the population of this region, however, are still not connected to the mobile internet
even though they are covered by a 3G or 4G network. While the ability to be connected is increasing in the region, there is still evidently a divide between those with access to the internet and those without.
The difference in speed between 3G and 5G networks further fuels inequalities that we see today. For example, 3G works at 2.1 Gigahertz frequency, 5G at 95 Gigahertz. In terms of download speeds 5G is more than 300 times faster – standing at approximately five minutes for 500 megabytes using 3G – roughly to download a one-hour video – compared to 1.5 seconds for 5G.
5G also offers wider coverage, more stable connections, higher upload and download speeds and simultaneous connectivity for multiple devices. It can be applied to health, education and transport and will have an exponential, transformative effect on society in the future.
While this is undoubtedly beneficial for developed nations, what about the countries without access to 5G infrastructure required to develop such technologies? Imagine the time difference of processing of transactions in New York versus doing the same in Tanzania – it just further exacerbates the divide for people living in developed and developing countries.
Accessibility to 3G and 4G coverage has increased in the Middle East and North Africa in recent years; 3G went from 87 per cent coverage in 2017 to 89 per cent in 2019, while 4G coverage went from 51 per cent in 2017 to 62 per cent in 2018. These levels of accessibility are beneficial for a majority of the population, however the affordability of access as a percentage of monthly income highlights the divide: 1GB of internet costs 1.2 per cent of average monthly income. Average affordability of the cheapest internet device as a percentage of monthly income is still 17.1 per cent as of 2018. As a result, rural populations are 36 per cent less likely to use mobile internet than urban populations. These numbers are gradually decreasing, and we are hopeful that as more and more people across the world come online, the cost of internet access will hopefully continue to fall.
At Ding we want to change the narrative – to connect people irrespective of geography, politics, gender or race. Connectivity is not a luxury – it is a lifeline.
In order to connect with the transformative power of digitisation, we need to transcend politics and focus on collaboration to create a new narrative to bring people on the journey of total connectivity.
Engaging in meaningful conversation with business partners and political leaders of different persuasions, in order to meet the demand for unlimited connectivity has been referred to as ‘The Geopolitics of Mutual Interest” by European Union president Ursula von der Leyen.
We reflect on how to shape our digital future in a connected world, I hope we value human interest, equality and development above other considerations.