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‘5G will unlock potentials of many nations’

Born in 1988 in Kaduna to Abdulrahman Sambo, the former acting executive secretary of the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS), Yusuf Abdulrahman Sambo, at the…

Born in 1988 in Kaduna to Abdulrahman Sambo, the former acting executive secretary of the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS), Yusuf Abdulrahman Sambo, at the age of 27, completed his Ph.D in Mobile Communications from the 5G Innovation Centre at the University of Surrey in 2016. Today, Yusuf, a former lecturer at Baze University Abuja, is one of the leading figures in Scotland’s revolutionary 5G technology. He speaks to Amina Alhassan on the breakthrough in 5G technology and other tech-related issues.

Daily Trust: Tell us about your journey into the tech world

Yusuf Abdulrahman Sambo: I recall being fascinated with how TV remote controls worked and breaking the ones we had at home to see what was inside. Later on, my dad taught me how to use a computer and I was writing simple programs in Q-basic while in primary school. So, it all started early on, in my life.

DT: What is 5G and how does it work?

Sambo:  5G, like other generations, relies on radio frequency waves to connect devices to the network. However, 5G will utilize a much wider spectrum and incorporate other access technologies such as WiFi and Lora to deliver its KPIs. It also has a new architecture that brings about so much flexibility that operators can literally create several networks within the network to serve different use cases and also rent out these mini-networks or “slices” to businesses to use as private networks.

DT: How does it feel designing and building the first real-time 5G pop-up network?

Sambo: The project I’m working on is on designing emergency communication systems, and as the 5G testbed lead, I was tasked with coming up with a solution that would provide connectivity to both search and rescue workers and victims within the disaster areas. There were other researchers, including our director Prof Muhammad Imran who actively participated throughout the development phase. It obviously feels good knowing the popup network has several humanitarian applications, including disaster management, rural connectivity and healthcare provisioning, and crowded events, among many others.

DT: 4G is what most African countries especially Nigeria are still battling with, what are users really lacking with regards to that and how will 5G fill those needs and wants?

Sambo: 5G is often referred to as a revolution of mobile communication systems, and not just a new generation of mobile systems. This is because 5G is being designed to support numerous vertical industries such as smart energy grid, connected healthcare, smart transport, agriculture, education, e-governance and a host of others. Unfortunately, these verticals have specific requirements that previous generations cannot meet. This is where 5G comes into play. It has up to 20 times increase in peak data rates and 100 times increase in energy efficiency compared to 4G. 5G will achieve sub millisecond latency, support 1million connections per square kilometer and mobility of 500 kilometer per hour. These unique key performance indicators of 5G will aid the ubiquity of connected devices to improve personal lifestyles and transformation of businesses.

DT: How much does a country stand to gain from 5G revolution?

Sambo: Given its rich KPIs, 5G will unlock the potentials of many nations depending on the areas of deployment and the peculiar needs of the residents. 5G is basically like a massive container ship that can carry enormous cargo, but it’s up to the agents or customers to determine what cargo they want to transport. The Minister of Communications recently predicted that the ICT sector would double the contribution of oil and gas to the GDP in the next two to three years. This can easily be achieved with early adoption of 5G.

DT: What will be the impact of 5G on the telecoms industry?

Sambo: 5G will open new revenue streams for operators but don’t expect to see 5G if the business case is not right for them. The main use cases of 5G are enhanced mobile broadband and fixed wireless access, which is basically 5G’s alternative to fiber brodband. Given the low fiber penetration in Nigeria, operators will be able to provide reliable broadband to homes and businesses with speeds of over 100 Mbps at 50% of the deployment cost of fibre. 5G will support virtual/augmented reality apps and ultra HD streaming of videos on mobile devices. The increased demand for bandwidth by customers due to new services and applications will see mobile operators smiling to the bank.

DT: What are the major challenges that need to be tackled on the way to technological maturity of 5G?

Sambo: Like I mentioned earlier, the low fiber penetration in Nigeria is a huge challenge because 5G will rely on an ultra dense deployment of small cells to provide the promised KPIs. Fortunately, the NCC has licensed infrasructure companies to build and operate fiber networks across the geopolitical zones of the country.

DT: Some health experts have said the 5G technology has its own risks, when it comes to radiation. Can you explain some of these risks and how it can be managed?

Sambo: The radio spectrum belongs to the non-ionizing radiation group, meaning it does not have enough energy to alter the atomic structure of the body. Obviously, more studies are needed to evaluate the effect of long-term exposure to RF radiation, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified it in the same group as pickled vegetables. This group is reserved for things that have not been found to be carcinogenic but require further studies. Even at that, there are precautionary approaches to minimize exposure such as the use of hands-free devices, compliance with safety distances between antennas and the public and regulations on the maximum transmit powers of devices, among others.

DT: You have been in the forefront of Scotland’s 5G revolution. How long did it take your team and you to achieve this remarkable feat?

Sambo: Key members of the team have been working on 5G for about a decade now. Our director has led the New Physical Layer work area at the 5G Innovation Center for several years before moving to Glasgow. I was fortunate to be under his supervision for both my masters and PhD degrees, so we didn’t just jump into 5G. I’ve been at Glasgow for 2 years now and within this time; we had setup a self organizing testbed that is able to operate autonomously with minimal human intervention. We are currently expanding the testbed to cover larger parts of the university to try new 5G use cases.

DT: What were the challenges?

Sambo: Fortunately for us, our research focus is in line with the university and the government’s strategic plans, so we have been receiving the necessary support from both the university management and government.

DT: Do we see you coming back home to help develop Nigeria’s tech industry?

Sambo: As the saying goes, there is no place like home. I am always open to contributing to the advancement of research and development in Nigeria. Besides, the work we do at Glasgow is directly related to the problems facing Nigeria. We focus on unleashing the potentials of rural communities using 5G to improve agricultural outputs, healthcare delivery, smart grid applications, etc. We also have researchers that are working on the Internet of Things (IoT) for monitoring of oil and gas facilities.

DT: Where do you see Nigeria in the next five years regarding technology?

Sambo: Nigeria has the potential to be whatever we want her to be but we need to get our priorities sorted out first. Give us regular electricity and access to broadband and you will see wonders. Just observe the tech hubs in Lagos, Kano, Abuja as well as CoLab in Kaduna and you will realize that there are incredibly talented young Nigerians who have so much to offer and can rival their peers anywhere in the world. There is another Nigerian Research Associate, Dr Kayode Onireti who is also involved in the testbed and we have 3 Nigerian PhD students in our group.

DT: What do you think, Nigeria needs to do to up its tech game, giving that the world is moving away from 2G, 3G and even 4G?

Sambo:  5G will let us implement various use cases to solve our local problems. Tech start-ups have to be supported to come up with these use cases. Like I said earlier, give us stable electricity and broadband, and we will take care of ourselves.

DT: When Yusuf isn’t involved in tech, what does he do as a form of relaxation?

Sambo: I love watching football and playing squash. I also enjoy watching random documentaries.

DT: What is your favorite dish?

Sambo: Waina

DT: Your favourite book?

Sambo: Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. It gives us insights on why nations develop differently.

DT: If you weren’t into the tech industry, what other thing do you think you would have excelled in?

Sambo: Maybe medicine. Fun fact is, over 90% of my extended family is into either education or healthcare.

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