As the world races to upgrade to the five generation internet spectrum, African countries have been dragging feet. The situation is set to widen the gap of poor internet speed in the continent, even though a couple of African countries have moved from observing to participating.
Mid-last year, MTN announced it’s 5G roll out in South Africa. The South African operator said the launch will kick off with the deployment of 100 5G sites.
The network currently covers areas of Johannesburg and Cape Town, as well as Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth.
Quartz reported that Mobile network operator Safaricom has launched a 5G network in Kenya. This makes it the second country in Africa to roll out the technology to customers, according to GSMA, an organization representing mobile network operators worldwide. The company is trialing the technology in four towns, and expects to expand it to nine over the next year.
Safaricom’s introduction of the technology in Kenya is “an important step in Africa’s 5G journey,” says Kenechi Okeleke, the lead author of a 2019 report on 5G in sub-Saharan Africa by GSMA . “This move will draw a lot of attention to the potential of 5G in the region and the benefits it can bring to society,” he told Quartz.
5G is the fifth generation technology standard for broadband cellular networks which offers data speeds up to 100 times faster than 4G and lower latency (the delay an instruction for a data transfer and its actual transfer). It can also support up to 1 million connected devices per square kilometer, compared to up to 100,000 for 4G.
While more African countries have trialed the 5G spectrum, there has been little or no move from most of them to develop the infrastructure.
Nigeria, the largest economy in the continent was early to the 5G trial. The West African country was the first in the region to trial 5G on Nov. 25, 2019. Ever since then, the 5G spectrum has faced and overcame many objections. However, as the concerns of safety trailing the 5G roll out got laid to rest, Nigeria has been watching from a distance and there has been uncomfortable silence by telecom operators.
The silence bears economic consequences for Nigeria as 5G is projected by GSMA to yield $1.1 trillion economy by 2025. This means that Nigeria’s lukewarm attitude toward the roll out is sidelining her from grabbing a huge share of the emerging market using her booming population.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the world to unprecedented digital life, highlighting the need for faster internet.
Consumers are expected to embrace IoT and use it in new areas of everyday living such as; energy efficiency, home security and fitness and well-being monitoring. With the number of new activities expected to be powered by IoT, the connections are projected to double to 11.4 billion in the same time frame, GSMA said in 2020 report.
Apart from the pandemic-induced necessities, Africa is experiencing a tech boom that cuts across many sectors, particularly fintech. With startups popping up here and there, the continent will need more reliable internet to sustain the economic growth.
5G thus becomes not just a choice for African countries, but a necessity for future economic sustainability.
5G-based internet will hit 1.8 billion connections by 2025, covering a staggering number of the world’s population that could be evenly shared, if every region plays its card well.
Over the next five years, operators are expected to invest around $1.1 trillion in mobile capex globally, and about 80% of it will be in 5G networks, GSMA remarked.
Out of the 1.8 billion 5G connections expected by 2025, developed Asia is projected to have 50%, North America, 48%, Europe 34%, developing Asia, 22%, GCC Arab States 21%, Russia & CIS 12%, Latin America 7%, rest of Middle East and North Africa (MENA) 4% and Sub-Saharan Africa 3%.
“Sub-Saharan Africa will remain the fastest growing region, with a CAGR of 4.6% and an additional 167 million subscribers over the period to 2025. This will take the total subscribers over the period to over 600 million, representing around half the population,” GSMA report said
Safaricom CEO Peter Ndegwa described Kenya’s 5G launch last week as “a major milestone for the country.” The telco is implementing the project using technology from the Finnish company Nokia and the Chinese company Huawei.
The initial focus will be on how 5G will enhance broadband connectivity for Safaricom, says Okeleke, director at GSMA’s research arm, GSMA Intelligence. However, he adds, given the company’s track record in tech innovation, many observers will be on the lookout for potential new use cases that Safaricom could develop for Africa’s unique challenges and customer needs.
With existing 3G and 4G infrastructure download speed of 1.56 megabytes per second (Mbps), Africa’s economic future undoubtedly needs the 5G speed.
5G’s faster speeds bring fiber optic-like connectivity to homes—a broadband connection that can reach speeds of up to 940 megabits per second. This would be a game changer for African businesses and schools that do not have access to fiber-optic internet, especially in a post-Covid-19 world where activities including work, learning, and entertainment are increasingly happening online, Okeleke said.
He added that the technology could enable new and existing technologies such as artificial intelligence and the internet of things—the interconnection via the internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects—to have a transformative impact on business processes, helping drive productivity and efficiency. “This has the potential to spark innovative solutions, particularly in extractive sectors such as mining and oil and gas, and help financial services and logistics sectors in the continent,” he said.
There have been concerns over Africa’s ability to keep up with the needed infrastructure to keep 5G network running, including its devices that are currently limited.
“The investment outlay for 5G is very high for mobile phone networks,” Okeleke said. “Phones that can connect to 5G are also very expensive for consumers—the average selling price for 5G phones in the US last year was $730.”
Currently, Africa’s mobile phone market is dominated by 3G and 4G networks. GSMA Intelligence believes that it will remain dominant, with 5G connections making up only 3% of total mobile connections in Africa by 2025. South Africa’s 5G connections account for less than 1% currently. Uptake of 5G may also be slow, since 4G is enough to meet people’s data needs for day-to-day use.
Despite the concerns about investor and market readiness for the 5G technology in Africa, Okeleke expects that the need for 5G will grow quickly as events unfold to create more rooms for internet activities.
“As these things become more commonplace in the region, then we are likely to see that stronger demand for 5G services in a way that saw that strong demand for 2G services in the early 2000s. And it is that demand for 5G services that will improve the economics of investments into 5G networks,” he said.
However, Nigeria’s lax attitude means that South Africa and Kenya will lead Africa’s 5G market.