Steady Access

Despite COVID-19, Africa Remains A Long Way From 5G Adoption

By  |  July 13, 2021

Of the 687 cities in China, 341 have active 5G connections. In the United States, South Korea, the United Kingdom and Spain, the fifth-generation connectivity tech is present in 279, 85, 54, and 53 cities, respectively. 

From a regional reference frame, Asia chairs the pack with 528 connected cities, followed by the EMEA (with 459) and the Americas (with 349).

Despite 5G being widespread across European and Middle Eastern countries, the connection is acutely interrupted when it comes to Sub-Saharan Africa. 

While 5G has been launched in both likely and unlikely pockets of the region, the adoption of this mobile technology isn’t witnessing a significant uptake. Countries like South Africa, Kenya, Togo, and even Lesotho have active cases for the connection, but when it comes to the entire Sub-Saharan African collection, there’s a chasm that doesn’t look like it’s closing anytime soon. 

The 20th installation of the Ericsson Mobility Report predicts a toppling of mobile subs in Sub-Saharan Africa, but turns down the volume for the region’s 5G uptake. In as much as 5G will become the fastest mobile gen tech to be adopted in the world, its volumes won’t see growth in the markets on the southern half of the Mediterranean Sea. 

According to the report, there is currently less than 1 percent of mobile phones connected to 5G in the region. What’s more, the figure is likely to remain unchanged this year, though there is a chance for 5G volumes to reach 70 million subscriptions come 2026. To achieve universal, affordable, and quality internet access in Africa by 2030, USD 100 Bn needs to be invested in its network connection sector.

Africa is the least connected continent in the world, even though its mobile data costs comprise some of the highest in the world. Even though there are more mobile phone subs in this region than anywhere else, sustainable and affordable internet is yet a pie in the sky. The continent also has the youngest and fastest-growing population on the planet, but switching on 5G at the same pace with elsewhere players assumes a huge difficulty. 

According to Ericsson’s report, the delay of 5G adoption in Sub-Saharan Africa owes to the reliance level of its baseline.

43 percent of the mobile phone connections in the region operate the 3G network, while 14 percent are on 4G. Going by these figures, it could be a long time before Sub-Saharan Africa fully converts its 2G, 3G, and 4G users to 5G due to its existing network baseline.

“Sunsetting plans and trends look very different across regions and countries, with shutdowns already taking place in developed countries. This is enabled by the device mix; for instance, in North America, the 2G/3G share of subscriptions is only 7 percent, compared to Sub Saharan Africa, where the share is currently 70 to 80 percent,” the report stated. 

Ericsson’s findings correlate with that of the GSM Arena, whose 2019 research (PDF) into 5G in Africa blames the slow adoption of the connection on the region’s macroeconomic environments and relatively unhurried uptake of digital services 

“The concerns around 5G mirror those that heralded the arrival of 2G in Sub-Saharan Africa two decades ago. In 1999, GDP per capita in Sub-Saharan Africa, at USD 567 on average, was a tenth of global GDP, while literacy levels, access to electricity, existing telecoms infrastructure and other prerequisites for 2G deployment and adoption were among the lowest in the world. Despite these limitations, take-up of 2G exceeded expectations over the following decade,” the report stated. 

Mobile broadband tech from previous generations are limited in a number of ways, including network capacity, latency and spectral efficiency. 5G, further up the network ladder, is in the right position to bridge the gaps common with preceding broadband systems.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, this is even more needed, where 44 percent of the total population (an equivalent of just over 450 million people) are under the age of 15—majority of which will depend on fast mobile connections as they become adults. 

According to stats from the 2020 GSMA Mobile Economy report, 3G is likely to remain Sub-Saharan Africa’s chief network, as it will account for no less than 58 percent of the forecast 1.05 billion mobile connections that would exist by 2025. No wonder stakeholders in the telecommunications industry seem more focused on increasing the uptake of 4G, albeit keeping an eye on the said fifth-gen revolution.

By the same 2025, 4G connections are predicted to account for just 27 percent of the region’s entire mobile connections. 

In the deployment of 5G, Sub-Saharan Africa has witnessed the entry of providers such as Rain in South Africa, Ericsson in Madagascar, and Nokia as well as Huawei in Kenya. But much of these developments have been mixed in controversies.

For one, Orange, which has boycotted the use of Chinese tech in its European telecoms markets, doesn’t mind engaging with Huawei for its 5G deployment in Africa.

So though its 5G operations are in line with the dictations of European governments, the French telco seems to believe there is no downside in letting Huawei help realize its African internet ambitions.

“We’re working more and more with Chinese vendors in Africa, not because we like China, but because we have an excellent business relationship with Huawei. They’ve invested in Africa while the European vendors have been hesitating, Reuters quoted Orange CEO Stephane Richard. 

The Trump-inspired clamor against Huawei is to the extent that the tech firm had to replace the equipment of its Belgian division with kit from Nokia—who, alongside Ericsson—is steadily amassing global 5G market shares in the wake of Huawei’s troubles.

The “national security threat” factor associated with the company’s offerings also seemingly pushed Safaricom—East Africa’s most valuable company—to team Huawei up with Nokia to roll out Kenya’s first commercial 5G. 

Perhaps more than anything else, the coronavirus pandemic proves that the world cannot continue to be heavily dependent on an offline reality. Moving things online has become more important, thus increasing the demand for data and faster internet speeds.

With rapid 5G deployment, the demand can be met. But despite the digital implication of the global health crisis, there seems a long way to go before 5G is significantly operational in the continent.

Take Kenya for instance, where Google’s balloon-based internet project Loon was called off this year in a move which the East African country’s government claims is ultimately necessary for bringing existing 3G users into the 4G threshold. The “unreadiness” of the market could be one of the reasons Transsion—Africa’s leading phonemaker—isn’t yet keen on making 5G-supported smartphones.

But in a place like Africa, fifth-generation internet connectivity is a matter of “when” as widespread deployment is inevitable given the continent’s numerous growth prospects. 

Featured Image: Cisco

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