BY CHUKS OLUIGBO
Service providers around the world are speedily switching to fifth generation technology (5G), the latest innovation in cellular technology, with projections that global subscriptions for what is now the fastest-deployed mobile communication technology in history will exceed one billion in 2022, from 660 million estimated subscriptions at the end of 2021. Also, global 5G subscriptions are expected to reach 4.4 billion or 75 percent of the world’s population by 2027, according to a June report by Ericsson, a world-leading provider of telecommunications equipment and related services to mobile and fixed network operators.
In sub-Saharan Africa, however, 5G adoption has been off to a slow start, with 4G penetration still at a low rate of 13 percent as of 2021, raising the question of whether the region is ready to leapfrog 5G.
The benefits of 5G technology over predecessor generations are not in doubt. 5G guarantees higher connection speed, mobility and capacity, as well as low-latency capabilities to communications services. This means quicker downloads, much lower lag, and other connectivity benefits that are expected to make businesses, especially fintech and e-commerce firms, more efficient and give consumers access to more information faster than ever before.
According to iotsworldcongress.com, “The main advantages of the 5G are a greater speed in the transmissions, a lower latency and therefore greater capacity of remote execution, a greater number of connected devices and the possibility of implementing virtual networks (network slicing), providing more adjusted connectivity to concrete needs.”
In sub-Saharan Africa, 3G mobile data traffic is still dominant and increasing, though the number of 4G subscriptions grew by 26 percent in 2021, according to the biannual report by Ericcson, which offers industry-leading insights into the future of the mobile world as well as forecasts of mobile coverage, subscriptions and traffic. Strong growth is expected to continue in 2022, and majority of the traffic growth is expected to be in 4G, buoyed by the growing demand for mobile voice and data services and investment in telecom infrastructure.
On the other hand, 5G technology is still in its infancy stage in the region.
In South Africa, considered the most advanced country in the sub-Saharan region in terms of mobile broadband coverage, MTN is projecting to cover at least 25 percent of the population with 5G by the end of 2022 and 60 percent by 2025.
Léa Zouein, analyst at Dataxis, says Africa’s largest network’s projects to extend 5G to this level is a manifestation of a region that is moving at two speeds as 4G is still at a low level of adoption in sub-Saharan Africa as a whole.
“By the end of the first quarter of 2022, less than 30 percent of mobile broadband subscriptions were 4G while over 70 percent of subscriptions were 2G/3G,” writes Zouein.
Part of the challenge in sub-Saharan Africa, Zouein says, is that mobile internet has been a substitute for fixed lines which are few and expensive.
“At the end of the first quarter of 2022, there were about 9.5 million of fixed wireline and wireless internet subscribers, representing a penetration rate of 0.83 percent of the sub-Saharan population. At the same time, mobile internet has a penetration rate of about 45 percent of the sub-Saharan population showing the importance of 4G and 5G technologies to reach connectivity in the region. While 4G would enable a broader and simpler usage of applications such as video streaming, 5G is primarily destined for industry usage and to support the deployment of IoT,” she writes.
The issues preventing a complete development of mobile broadband in sub-Saharan Africa are mostly technical (deployment of a functional network), financial (price of subscriptions and smartphones) and geographical (how to cover the most remote rural areas), according to Zouein.
“For the time being, the low growth of 4G is mainly due to technical constraints as operators need to set up efficient network coverage both in cities and in the more isolated rural areas. Since more than 60 percent of the sub-Saharan population lives in rural areas, one of the major challenges for telecom companies is to extend their networks and increase the penetration rate of mobile internet (around 43 percent in 2021, and 13 percent for 4G),” she writes.
Some countries in sub-Saharan Africa have begun the development of 5G. Countries like Botswana, Mauritius, Seychelles, South Africa, and Zimbabwe are already commercializing their 5G, in very localized areas, mostly in capital cities and large towns.
For countries like Nigeria, Gabon, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Senegal and Uganda, Zouein says the network remains inoperative either because they are still in the testing phase or because of administrative barriers, but the commercial launch is expected for the end of 2022.
In Nigeria, the telecommunications industry regulator has given MTN and Mafab Communication, winners of the country’s 3.5 Gigahertz (GHz) spectrum licence auction conducted in December 2021, a deadline of 24 August this year to deploy 5G technology.
The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) has an ambitious plan for 5G deployment in the country going into 2025. MTN, Africa’s largest telecom company by revenue and user numbers, and Mafab Communications Ltd, incorporated in 2020 and licensed to provide and operate local interconnect and international carrier services, having made their full payment of $273.6 million each for the 5G spectrum licence to the NCC, are leading the charge.
The NCC expects MTN and Mafab to complete band clearance and commencement of rollout by August, complete rollout of services in at least two states in each of Nigeria’s six geo-political zones by June 2023, roll out services in at least six states in each of the geo-political zones by June 2024, and complete a pan-Nigeria rollout of 5G by June 2025.
According to Zouein, the general objective of 5G in Western countries is to replace 4G usage. However, with the way the deployment is going in sub-Saharan Africa, it is doubtful whether a similar pattern can be replicated in the region.
In Nigeria, the NCC does not see 5G deployment displacing predecessor generations of wireless networks but expects that they would co-exist.
At a telecom consumer event in Lagos in June, Bako Wakil, NCC’s director of technical standards and network integrity, while allaying the fears of those who think that 5G deployment would disenfranchise them from the network, said that in most parts of the world, the successor generation of mobile networks does not supplant the predecessor generation networks, until when it becomes very necessary to decommission the oldest generation network.
Simply put, Africa’s journey towards 5G is far from begun as, according to Zouein, 5G subscriptions in the region will be less than 4 percent in 2027.
“It is estimated that it will take until 2027 for 4G mobile subscriptions to overtake other mobile internet subscriptions in sub-Saharan Africa. 4G subscriptions will then account for just under 50 percent, and 5G subscriptions still less than 4 percent,” Zouein writes.
But the simultaneous development of 4G and 5G is a plus for sub-Saharan Africa as it allows the region to meet the growing demand for connectivity coming from its population, and to set the ground for technological progress and improvements on industry applications, she writes.