Sustainable wireless networks - bridging the gap

10 October 2023

Chafic Traboulsi, Vice President and Head of Networks, Ericsson Middle East & Africa

Chafic Traboulsi, Vice President and Head of Networks, Ericsson Middle East & Africa

What’s your assessment of the wireless communications marketplace in Africa in 2023?

The wireless communications marketplace in Africa in 2023 highlights the crucial role played by the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector as a catalyst for digital transformation. Mobile networks, particularly 4G and 5G technologies, are instrumental in enhancing Africa's economic competitiveness on the global stage. These cellular networks play a vital role in boosting technological adoption across the continent. The GSMA report "The Mobile Economy 2023" found 5G subscriptions in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) are estimated to rise to 213 million by 2030.

We have therefore seen increasing demand for 4G and 5G capabilities in Africa. Today, our focus lies in assisting communication service providers (CSPs) in the region to repurpose their 2G and 3G spectrum into 4G and assist them in 5G deployments.

Which technologies can help meet the booming demand for connectivity in Africa (high-capacity microwave)?

Meeting the booming demand for connectivity in Africa requires technologies and strategies that ensure efficient and widespread network coverage. The utilization of wireless technologies like 5G, which can facilitate faster and more dependable connectivity, particularly in regions where the feasibility of deploying fiber-optic infrastructure might be economically challenging. Moreover, the advent of innovative technologies like satellite internet offers a means to extend connectivity to remote and geographically challenging areas that do not have access to conventional infrastructure.

With the fast adoption of 5G, high-capacity microwave technology continues to evolve. Service providers now require innovative solutions to meet rising demands for capacity in a cost-efficient way. E-band spectrum (70/80GHz) efficiently caters to 5G network needs, providing fiber-like capacities with rapid deployment. Regulators in several African countries allocate E-band spectrum, enabling faster market entry, reduced total cost of ownership, and lower latency compared to fiber. Long-haul microwave links effectively connect rural areas and offer link protection and island coverage, meeting capacity needs in diverse scenarios and contributing to Africa's digital transformation.

What role will Ericsson play in helping connect the continent’s unconnected?

A significant portion of Africa's population resides in rural areas, where the average revenue per user is low. Traditional macro site deployments often struggle to justify the high infrastructure costs, including energy expenses. To bridge this gap, Ericsson has developed an initiative that focuses on delivering mobile coverage to underserved rural areas in Africa. Ericsson's Rural Site solution offers a comprehensive approach, encompassing essential components for broadband coverage. This holistic solution includes concrete-free towers, tailored radio and transmission solutions, and solar panels with lithium batteries for power.

Concrete-free towers offer cost-effective and reliable infrastructure for radio access network (RAN) installation, making deployment in challenging terrains more efficient. On the other hand, tailored radio and transmission solutions are optimized for rural environments, ensuring robust and high-quality connectivity. The use of solar panels and batteries provide green and uninterrupted power sources, particularly in areas with limited access to the power grid.

The improved connectivity empowers these communities with access to education, healthcare information, mobile financial services, and more, fostering social and economic development.

Ericsson's initiative has already been implemented in African markets, demonstrating its potential to enable digital inclusion in rural areas. This effort aligns with our larger goal of keeping “Africa in Motion” to empower a connected Africa. By deploying this solution, Ericsson aims to bridge the digital divide, providing affordable and accessible broadband coverage to rural communities. Access to broadband internet is now a fundamental requirement for communities to thrive in today’s digital age, and Ericsson remains committed to empowering rural communities in Africa and fostering their integration into the digital economy.

What is the biggest challenge limiting higher connectivity rates in Africa, and how does this vary from country to country?

The primary challenge limiting higher connectivity rates in Africa is the lack of critical ICT infrastructure, especially in rural areas. This challenge varies across countries due to factors such as income disparities, regulatory environments, geographical size, political stability, and population density. Income disparities affect affordability, while regulatory policies impact investment and competition. Geographical size and distribution of the population can make infrastructure deployment difficult. Political stability and governance play a crucial role, as do digital literacy and education. Economic development influences the resource allocation. Addressing these challenges through infrastructure development, regulatory reforms, and digital literacy programs is crucial for improving connectivity rates across the continent.

Ericsson continues to collaborate with governments and service providers, encouraging public-private partnerships to finance technology infrastructure projects. Recognizing the significance of rural infrastructure, Ericsson has developed innovative technologies, such as the Radio 6626, a three-sector dual-band radio, aiding communications service providers (CSPs) in Africa to extend Frequency Division Duplex (FDD), broaden broadband accessibility, and reduce energy consumption, weight, volume, and cabling demands.

Furthermore, addressing the digital skills gap is also imperative. In alignment with this objective, Ericsson participates as a key partner in initiatives like UNICEF and ITU's GIGA, which seeks to enhance connectivity access in schools and rural areas. Additionally, the Ericsson launched the Graduate Program in Africa, designed to strengthen the technical skills of graduates through comprehensive training in Ericsson's technology, solutions, and delivery methods, alongside the knowhow of Ericsson's processes, tools, and methodologies.

How can energy consumption by wireless networks be reduced considering Africa’s power supply challenges?

Ensuring the implementation of a robust strategy to curtail energy consumption in wireless networks across Africa, especially considering the region's power supply challenges, are of utmost importance. We firmly believe that embracing the latest 5G technology is pivotal in curbing energy costs and breaking the energy curve. This commitment is in alignment with the environmentally conscious rollout of 5G networks in Africa. To initiate this process, a primary focus is placed on modernizing hardware. The latest equipment can yield remarkable benefits, including a tenfold improvement in capacity and more than 30% energy savings. Additionally, significant gains can be achieved by implementing 5G's energy-saving software.

Ericsson is actively engaged in the development of intelligent RAN energy-saving software features. These innovations are designed to assist operators in achieving significant reductions in energy consumption while optimizing network performance. Through efficient monitoring and AI-supported tracking, we have identified areas for optimization, which can result in annual reductions of up to 12 percent in RAN energy use.

In addition to optimizing network equipment, Ericsson places a strong emphasis on intelligent product design. This entails responsible materials selection and resource utilization to minimize waste and mitigate electronic waste. Moreover, Ericsson is dedicated to addressing the complete life cycle of electronic equipment, offering customers a comprehensive take-back service, which includes secure data destruction, ensuring the responsible disposal and recycling of electronic devices.

It is imperative to take an integrated approach to tackle network energy consumption and carbon emissions. This approach extends beyond the performance of individual products and must take into account the entirety of the network ecosystem.

What was Ericsson’s biggest success on the continent in 2023?

Ericsson's most significant success on the continent in 2023 is its relentless efforts to accelerate digitalization in Africa and foster connectivity.

A significant accomplishment is the introduction of Radio 6626, a radio technology that reduces power consumption by up to 50% and lightens tower loads. Deployed in over 20 African countries, it has contributed significantly to the expansion of 4G availability and paved the way for 5G adoption.

Ericsson has also recognized the importance of rural connectivity in bridging the digital divide. The development of solar-powered rural site solutions, requiring minimal civil work, has extended network coverage and enhanced connectivity in remote areas. These solutions offer benefits such as reduced energy consumption, faster installation, and fewer cabling requirements.