We’ll spearhead efforts to bring 5G to more communities
Apr 17, 2023
7th June 2023
By Chinenye Anuforo [email protected]
Mr. Mohammed Rufia, is the Chief Technical Officer (CTO), MTN Nigeria. He began his career with MTN Nigeria in 2002 as an RF/BTS support engineer and has garnered over 19 years’ extensive leadership experience in the areas of telecoms strategy, network operations, planning and project management. In this interview , he talks about 5G and MTN's operations in Nigeria.
What is the status of 5G in the country?
As you are aware, we participated in the auction of the 5G spectrum, and MTN Nigeria is one of the winners who got the 100 megahertz or 3.5 gigahertz spectrum. Following the approval of the NCC, we have rolled out initially, starting with about seven cities, but now we are in 13 cities and over 700 sites in Nigeria. We had the launch event in Lagos, where we demonstrated the use cases. What 5G can be used for and what it can do, we have gone ahead and rolled out in several parts of the country, and that rollout is continuing. So, right now, we are in 13 cities (Lagos, FCT, Owerri, Ibadan, Maiduguri, Abeokuta, Shagamu, Ifo, Warri, Enugu, Benin City, Kano, Port Harcourt etc) and are still expanding. Nigerians are already enjoying the benefits of 5G.
How ready would you say Nigeria is for 5G?
The first and most important thing to have when rolling out 5G is the spectrum, and we have the spectrum. We also have the preceding technology, which is 4G, and we have the sites and the fibre infrastructure that are required for connectivity. So with all that, we were ready to roll out 5G from a technology point of view. We also have the capacity, the core network, and the features to be able to deploy. We have the technical know-how and subscribers that have the devices to be able to use 5G. So, we were ready. Nigeria was ready for 5G. We have all the things that we need. As with all of our technologies, we deploy them in phases. So, we start in a few cities, and then we expand, and subscribers will also adopt and get the devices over time and adopt the technology. So, I would say that Nigeria was ready at the time we launched the network and is progressing. We are going to be seeing more and more adoption going forward.
Why did MTN recently renew its 3G license in spite of the 5G launch, which is a higher network?
The fact that we are going to 5G does not mean we will not cater to the needs of subscribers that require the lower technology. As you are aware, devices have to be compatible with 5G for it to be used. We have many subscribers in Nigeria that have 2G and 3G devices, and we will continue to cater to the needs of those subscribers. So, while we are investing in the new technology, we must also maintain the other technologies that are needed by the people that use them and the people that don't yet have the devices for the newer technologies. So, this is the reason why we are still investing in and expanding on the old technologies, and also because the spectrum, the license allocated by NCC, and the network resources that are used for 3G can also be used on other technologies in the future, so the investment is still usable for the higher technologies when the devices are ready.
What is your assessment of Nigeria's broadband penetration?
Compared to other markets we have been to, I wouldn't say Nigeria is behind, and we have rolled out in large parts of Nigeria. We have over 90% population coverage on 2G technology. And we have over 83% population coverage on 3G. And now, we are covering over 79% of Nigeria with 4G, and each subscriber has their own needs. Some only need 3G; some subscribers will move to 4G. Even though there are significant benefits to moving to higher technology in terms of speed and latency, we try to cater to the needs of everyone. So, devices are one of the main factors in moving to higher technology, and we’re moving quickly. I believe Nigeria is not behind, and we are moving into higher technologies that will provide a more efficient network over time. But there are a lot of engagements in terms of creating awareness about the benefits of higher technologies. The government is also playing a key role in creating this awareness, the Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy and the NCC and there are many other players involved in improving device penetration so that people can get the benefits of this technology.
How is MTN making 5G devices accessible to Nigerians?
Even if you don't have high-end devices like Apple and other devices that can support 5G, we also offer affordable 5G routers. These routers can connect to our 5G network and provide connectivity for multiple users. So, the fixed wireless access part, which is the router part of 5G devices, helps give many subscribers access to 5G. Even if they don't have devices, they can connect via Wi-Fi to the 5G router and have access to 5G speeds and benefits. So, these are some of the things we are doing, and there are many partners that are also making devices available for our subscribers through various means.
How much has MTN invested in expanding the 5G network in Nigeria?
As I’ve mentioned earlier, the only thing I can say is that apart from the license fee that we have paid on the spectrum, we have also deployed over 700 sites in Nigeria. The actual commercials on those sites are not something I can disclose. But we have invested and we are continuing to invest, and so far we have deployed over 700 sites and associated infrastructure across the country.
When will the 5G network reach rural areas?
Network deployments are usually in phases, as we know from 2G, 3G and 4G. We started in big cities and will expand into other parts of the country. The same thing will be the case for 5G. We have now started in big cities, as I have said, and we are now in 13 cities like Maiduguri, Owerri, Warri, the outskirts of Lagos Shagamu, Abeokuta, and all that. We intend to expand 5G across the country. We do have a special program called rural telephony. We have already deployed over 2,000 sites in rural areas to ensure that everyone is connected. We do have a belief in MTN that everyone deserves the benefits of a modern, connected life. Therefore, all these solutions and technologies will eventually get to those areas with time, and we have a special program for rural connectivity. Right now, we are at the 4G stage, and it will get to 5G eventually.
What is the focus for MTN's 5G service?
As you know, MTN is a technology company focused on providing technology solutions. And our strategic intent is to lead and drive leading digital solutions for Nigeria's progress and Africa by extension. Apart from the usual voice and data services we provide, we have an enterprise that provides enterprise solutions for SMEs and large enterprises. And we are continuing to see how we can provide solutions that can enhance our businesses and also make the lives of our subscribers a whole lot brighter. So, today, some use cases require only 4G, such as basic use cases like WhatsApp, email, browsing and all that. But 5G also provides much better speed and latency to enhance the experience and enable other use cases that are not supported by technologies like 4G. So, yes, we have focused on enterprise solutions. Both those that are supported on 4G and specifically those that require 5G, high speed, and low latency. Maybe, let me explain further. The key benefits of 5G are that it is much faster than 4G and also provides very low latency, and latency means a delay. So, apart from the speed, there is also how long the signal takes to travel from one place to another, and that is one of the key advantages of 5G. So, with 5G, things like remotely controlling drones or robots are possible because the latency is very low. With 5G technology, things like doctors from a remote location carrying out procedures on patients over a 5G network because 5G has very low latency and high speed are possible. We demonstrated that during our launch when a doctor in Canada was able to perform a scan on a patient here over the 5G network, and the doctor was seeing it live without any delay or latency. Things like thin clients and cloud services, where your computer does not have to have a microprocessor or storage and it connects to a very powerful computer somewhere else and uses the computing power of the remote computer and also the storage on the remote computer, are enabled by 5G. Cloud services are applications that sit in the cloud, and you don't have to invest huge amounts to have server rooms and expensive applications, instead, you can easily share via the 5G network. Things like telepresence, where holograms can be used for engagements and all that, are all supported by the fact that 5G has low latency and very high speed. So, some of these applications are enterprise applications, and we are working with customers to develop even more solutions suitable for healthcare, mining, manufacturing, agriculture, tourism, utilities, and many other industries that can be enabled by this technology.
What is the update on the harmonization of right of way (RoW)?
I must commend the effort of the federal Government in harmonizing the right of way fees, which significantly reduced the cost of deployment and also enabled us to deploy in many locations. As you have mentioned, a number of states have complied, and we also have all the federal roads available at that price. So, the RoW challenges are being addressed. There are still some challenges in some areas and some states, but largely, we are making progress. We are deploying fibre extensively across the country. By the way, fibre is one of the key enablers for 5G technology. So for very high 5G speeds, you do need to deploy fibre to the base stations. And there are some other alternative technologies, but fibre is the most preferred, and we are deploying quite rapidly, enabled by this policy championed by the Honourable Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, to harmonize ROW. So, we have made significant progress, and there is still work to be done and areas to comply with, but we have made progress, and fibre has been deployed.
What influenced the cost of the 5G license in Nigeria?
Spectrum is a national resource and a finite resource, and the NCC conducted a very transparent auction to allocate that resource to potential bidders.
So, first of all, it was on auction, meaning that bidders were free to put in their bids until the auction is closed, and it was quite transparent. I must commend NCC for conducting such a transparent auction, which went very smoothly. There are so many ways to value spectrum; all the operators did their business cases and their forecasts, and as a result of that, we landed at that price. I think it was a fair process. It was an open process, and it was transparent. So, the eventual landing of that amount for that spectrum is what the auction produced. So, I believe that answers the question. The fact that it was an auction means that the best possible value was derived from that asset, and it was very transparent, and we were very happy with the process.
Is MTN thinking of shutting down its 2G and 3G networks?
These technologies will still be available to those that need them. As I said, some subscribers still have 2G and 3G devices. Therefore, we will not rush into switching off those technologies while subscribers have those devices because they have a need for the service. As I also mentioned earlier, what was renewed was the license for the 3G spectrum, and that spectrum can also be used on 4G and 5G in the future. So, MTN Nigeria would always take into account what our subscribers need and what they are using and gradually move those resources to the best possible technology. So, we will not leave anyone behind. While we encourage all subscribers to move to higher technology for the better experience and benefits of those higher technologies, we will always take into account the fact that some people will need the lower technologies. So, there will be a time when the number of people using the newer technologies will reduce significantly, and at that time, we will consider the possibility of reducing investment in those specific networks. But, take note, I think the important thing is that both the spectrum and frequencies that are used for the lower technologies can easily be moved to the higher technologies. So all the technologies can coexist. Meaning that, when the demand for the technology reduces, those resources that we have invested in can be re-purposed or even used dynamically on demand for the higher technologies. So, it is a very flexible and smart technology that does not necessarily pin down resources. They can be pooled or moved from higher to lower, and lower to higher technologies, depending on demand. And we will always be conscious of the need for and capability of the devices of our subscribers. Mr. Mohammed Rufia, is the Chief Technical Officer (CTO), MTN Nigeria. He began his career with MTN Nigeria in 2002 as an RF/BTS support engineer and has garnered over 19 years’ extensive leadership experience in the areas of telecoms strategy, network operations, planning and project management. In this interview , he talks about 5G and MTN's operations in Nigeria.