As a new decade begins, commercial fifth generation wireless technology, or 5G, services have already permeated major markets across Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North America. With a growing global appetite for faster and dynamic connections, it is expected that the 2020s will see more widespread deployment and adoption of the 5G technology around the world, including Africa.
According to a 2019 research report titled “5G in Sub-Saharan Africa: laying the foundations” prepared by GSMA Intelligence, a research firm that deals with mobile operator data analysis and forecasts, there has been growing shift from basic voice to data services in Africa over the past decade. This can be seen in smartphone adoption which has doubled over the last three years and now accounts for two in five mobile connections.
Despite market demand, Africa still lags behind in rolling out the 5G network. So far, Lesotho and South Africa are the only countries where 5G is commercially available but services are limited.
Last November, the telecommunications company MTN carried out the first testing of 5G superfast mobile internet in Nigeria. In East Africa, Kenya’s biggest telecom operator Safaricom announced last week that it will consider awarding a contract to China’s Huawei as it rolls out its 5G network this year.
Michael Joseph, chief executive of Safaricom, on Feb 19 said that despite huge demand for increased bandwidth and more speed in East Africa, the 5G services network can only be offered to customers in major cities where demand is highest.
Adam Lane, senior director of public affairs for Huawei Southern Africa, said cost and lack of needed regulations to support the new technology hamper 5G rollout in the region. He said available spectrum is also limited.
“The communication industry in Africa needs to build business cases which will require industry-specific solutions, consumer education and innovative partnerships,” Lane said. “Currently, the 5G technology in Africa should not just target consumer devices directly, since most Africans keep devices for around 4 or more years. In the African market, there should be some clear business models in using 5G for fixed wireless access or using a Customer Premises Equipment and certain specific industry use cases such as in tourism, hospitality, mining and media broadcasting.”
According to Lane, a key solution to the business model challenge in Africa is to reduce the costs of the network, from the spectrum to the backhaul and to the taxes imposed on operators, data, mobile money and devices.
He said that governments can play a key role in helping solve these barriers by taking a leadership position and commitment to provide such support.
Despite the challenges, Africa has the advantage of not being slowed down by the restrictions placed on the globally leading 5G developer Huawei by the US.
“We will use Huawei in our 5G rollout,” said Safaricom’s Joseph. “What will we do in terms of the American statements about not using Huawei? We don’t have that situation in Africa.”