"One of the key first applications that I see for 5G in Uganda will be the wireless fiber connectivity of bringing reliable, high speed and low latency internet into hundreds of millions of homes on the continent," said Wim Vanhelleputte, CEO of MTN Uganda, during an interview at the 5G technology trial ceremony in Kampala, capital of Uganda, who shared his ideas on the key 5G application in Africa, the unique challenges in Uganda and the importance of human resources. On Jan 17, ZTE and MTN Uganda started a 5G trial to be the first to bring the standalone 5G network into reality in East Africa.
Most of the countries in Africa are still in 2G, 3G and 4G eras. We are in a time to transition from 4G to 5G. What made you decide to launch 5G in Uganda?
I am very grateful that you are a trustworthy and reliable technological partner that has enabled us to show off the 5G pilot today. It has been a great success. It proves that we are at the forefront of technology innovation. It also proves in the long term that our commercially viable applications will require 5G and make 5G relevant for Uganda. I strongly believe in the concept of wireless fiber. It is very difficult to get fiber rolled out in this country. There are a lot of restrictions like rebuilding a new road here. The following day we want to dig it up again to put your fiber. There will be a bit of coordination in terms of rolling out fiber infrastructure. So it is going to be a very big challenge in the next three to five years to roll out fiber to every household in Uganda, and that's why one of the key first applications that I see for 5G in Uganda and in Africa in general will be the wireless fiber connectivity of bringing reliable, high-speed and low latency internet into hundreds of millions of homes on the continent. You won't need to dig expensive and slow fiber into all the households. I strongly believe that in the next two to three years we will start seeing serious 5G roll out on the continent.
We still have to deal with the spectrum problem first.
Sure. The spectrum in 3.5 GHz, 700 MHz and all the other frequency bands has not been allocated yet. Spectrum is a scarce commodity at the disposal of a country. It is up to the regulatory authority to allocate it to the right people who can make the right use of it. We have had the discussions that the spectrum is going to be freed up and it will be available in the next one or two years so that we can start thinking of commercial applications.
MTN is a world-leading company. As the CEO of the company, how do you serve the MTN strategy in Uganda, the second-level country market?
The challenge in developing emerging economies like Uganda is that you need to spread yourself very wide. We have customers that are just discovering 2G voice because of enhanced rural development. Our group CEO Rob Shuter made the commitment to roll out more than 5000 rural sites within MTN's footprint. That means there are still unconnected people who are just discovering what a mobile telephone means. On the other end of the spectrum, we have a very vibrant, young and dynamic population who feels like whatever technology is available in the rest of the world should also be available in Uganda. They are entitled to it. So we have that challenge of deep-down rural connectivity in 2G, and at the same time we have aspirational, young and energetic customers who want 4G and even 5G. That's an exciting challenge we are facing in our market.
In South Korea where there is very advanced 5G, they are switching off 2G and they are probably looking at switching off 3G soon. They are just going to have 4G and 5G. For us, because of the wide spread of challenges, we have to cover the whole spectrum of 2G all the way to 5G. I believe we will go live with 5G before we switch off 2G. For us, it will be a combination of a whole set of technologies that will allow us to deliver services and enable applications relevant for the entire population. We need to be relevant as a mobile operator deep down in rural Uganda just as we have to be relevant for the young urban population in urban Kampala.
MTN is successful in the Ugandan market. How do you achieve this success? Is that the way you implement the Oxygen strategy in this country?
On the guidance and the visionary leadership of our group CTIO Charles Molapisi, we have embarked on the Oxygen program across our footprint in 21 countries. The Oxygen strategy is a beautiful acronym to show that we have to make technology relevant to our customers. Rolling out technology for the sake of technology is meaningless. At the end of the day, it is about what is useful, what applications can change people's lives. If there is one thing where I believe MTN has made a difference—I've been with MTN for more than 10 years—it is that we do listen to our customers and we understand our customers' needs. We are Africans. We develop applications and solutions for African challenges by Africans. I think our African connections make us very relevant to really understand what our customers need and how we can address and find solutions. Problems will always be there. The challenge is how you find relevant solutions to those problems. That's how you make a difference in a customer's life.
Just now you mentioned that MTN has captured Africans' needs. Do you think that the your people here in MTN contribute a lot towards the strategy of digitalization?
Our biggest asset is human resources. It is even more so for a technology company. Everybody can roll out 5G. It is, maybe, a matter of financial resources and technology partners. Technology is just technology on its own. How you make it relevant depends on the kind of people you work with. We have an amazing, dynamic young workforce, passionate about what they are doing. And we have solid technology partners like you. I think the combination of those two really makes a winning team. ZTE has been with us on the ground for many years. You employ a lot of Ugandans and bring managed services for us. So you know the potential that Ugandan engineers and technicians have. The world is a village. When you look at the VR applications, I can put on the glasses and I can feel as if I am walking on the Great Wall of China. Uganda, China and anywhere else in the world are becoming one village. Tapping into the unique human resources, creativity in this country but also abroad and across is going to take us forward into new territories.
We don't know even today what the applications of 5G will be. It is up to the human brain to think and understand the challenges we are facing and then to see how technology is going to address that. Who knew 20 years ago that because of 2G we would be able to do mobile money, which is a unique application coming out of East Africa to meet the challenge of unbanked? 2G is the enabler that allows smart people in East Africa (e.g. Kenya and Uganda) to develop mobile money technology or application. 2G was not developed to make mobile money happen; mobile money came as a result of finding a solution for a particular challenge. And the same will happen with 5G.
Some African operators are very concerned about the affordability of products. Do you believe that it is your biggest concern in the market right now?
Affordability of devices that enable 5G applications will be a challenge because already on 3G it is a challenge. In Uganda, we have 22 or 23 percent smartphone penetration because the smartphone is still relatively expensive for the Ugandan consumers even at the 30 or 40 dollar price point. Massive usage of 3G or 4G requires the right devices. We are catching up. I believe that the big obstacle we faced on 3G adoption—a smartphone costing a hundred dollars two or three years ago was a massive barrier—will be lowered. Today, technology is getting more and more efficient and the cost of 5G devices will go down much faster than that of 3G or 4G devices. I believe that it will take less time to democratize and make 5G massive market applications than it took for 3G or 4G.
Do you have any expectations on cooperation with ZTE?
My expectation is that we continue our good, healthy and solid relationship. We have just recently confirmed our mutual agreement to continue modernizing the network and rolling out a 5G pilot. There is still a lot of work on 4G. We have done 3G. So the immediate future is to roll out 4G everywhere. We have 4G in all dense urban areas but also need to take 4G countrywide. We count on you as our technology partner with your good collaboration with our staff and our people to take us forward, take yourself forward, take our customers forward and take the country forward!