Africa’s big 5G question

As Nigeria trials superfast 5G networking, there’s no shortage of hype over how the next generation of wireless technology could leapfrog Africa into the high-speed internet age. Here’s what you need to know.

The twittersphere was buzzing last October with news that the telecommunications company MTN had started testing 5G superfast mobile internet in Nigeria, a first for West Africa.

 Gabon is also holding trials, while Lesotho and South Africa have 5G networks up and running.

But according to the GSMA, 5G is coming to the African continent, but not anytime soon. GSMA Africa Head Akinwale Goodluck hasa said 5G is inevitable for Sub-Saharan Africa, but it is not imminent.

“5G is going to be a big enabler for the economy. 5G will drive efficiency in a lot of complex operations, but for us in Sub-Saharan Africa, we still need to get quite a few things right before we can roll out 5G,” Goodluck said.

However, he still believes that 5G will ultimately be “a big game changer” globally and also for those who live in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

“I think historically Africa has done pretty well in terms of leapfrogging – we have had the benefit and opportunity of learning from other jurisdictions as a new standard is implemented. I think 5G will be no different,” he said.

“One thing that is clear is that our 4G pipes are still relatively empty; the average across the region is still below 10%, in terms of throughput, so there is a lot of work still to be done in terms of filling up the 4G pipes and rolling out the 4G networks. [After that] 5G will come.”

According to statistics from GSMA, which represents the interests of around 750 mobile operators worldwide, in 2018 SSA’s mobile Internet users only made up 23% of the population. GSMA projects this will rise to 39% in 2025. It also predicts that by 2025, smartphones will make up 66% of all connections in SSA.

When will 5G be available in Africa?

It’s still early days so don’t hold your breath. Lesotho and South Africa are the only African countries where 5G is commercially available, but the services are extremely limited.

In Lesotho, only the Central Bank and a mining company can use 5G so far.

In South Africa, the data provider Rain is offering 5G to a select group of customers in Johannesburg and Tshwane, a municipality that includes Pretoria.

Only seven African countries, according to GSMA, including South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya, will have 5G by 2025. And this will account for only 3% of mobile data compared to 16% globally.

It’s assumed enterprises and public institutions, rather than consumers, will be the initial 5G customers and that they’ll access 5G via a fixed access point – something like a 5G hotspot beamed into a business – rather than using it as a mobile service on their smartphones.

African governments haven’t yet developed the regulations that would allow for a 5G rollout. In addition, mobile operators face huge infrastructure costs and that they aren’t sure how they’ll recoup.

Mobile carriers on the continent can’t launch full 5G services until each country’s communications regulator holds a spectrum auction to sell the rights to transmit over specific frequencies. (Rain in South Africa can only provide 5G because its using it existing spectrum to transmit the signal.)

Mobile operators also need to build the vast network of masts or antennas to transmit the signals.

For carriers, rolling out 5G services entails expensive investment – and in the African context, they aren’t sure it is worth it.

The continent already has an oversupply of 4G fast mobile internet that average consumers aren’t buying because it’s too expensive.

In Nigeria, for example, only about 4% of mobile internet users pay for 4G services while more than 40% use the cheaper, but slower, 3G internet even though Nigeria has an extensive 4G network. It’s the same story over most of Africa.

If African consumers can’t afford 4G, they certainly won’t be able to afford 5G or the new devices necessary to use 5G on a smartphone.

For Lagos-based ICT consultant Jide Awe, that’s where government needs to step in.

“5G is going to require huge infrastructure investment. How are you going to attract that kind of investment and make sure that you protect people who are investing?” Awe pointed out. “Governments need to show the political will that they are behind it.”

Tech optimists say 5G could allow Africa to access faster and more stable mobile internet without having to lay fiber optic cables that deliver high-speed broadband.

Just over half of Africa’s population live within 25 km of a fiber network. In Nigeria, independennt estimates put it much lower at around 14%.

“The time lag before large-scale 5G deployment could have positive implications for the region,” according the recent GSMA study.

This could allow 5G technology to mature and be tested in other markets allowing Africa to avoid mistakes made elsewhere. And the continent could also benefit if the costs of devices and equipment fall once more countries around the world start launching 5G.

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