December 8, 2023

Africa is welcoming a surge of interest in 5G, and rightly so. In Nigeria, for instance, telcos like MTN and Airtel have launched their respective 5G services to their millions of customers.

By Michael Akuchie

Imagine a freelancer in Nigeria gearing to have a work call with a client in faraway San Jose, USA. The client scheduled to chat at 11 a.m. San Jose time, but given the time zones, it is 8 p.m. Nigerian time. However, it is at this time the freelancer’s internet typically runs at 10 kilobytes per second instead of the 2 megabytes per second advertised by the network provider. As expected, the freelancer experiences serious network glitches during the call, no thanks to slow internet speed. This freelancer could easily be a programmer who wants to download a large-size file but is stuck at 3% after 3 hours, an online gamer looking to unwind with PUBG Mobile and Apex Legends after a long day, or any of several remote workers today who rely on fast-speed internet to work efficiently, but the reality of poor network speed becomes difficult to deal with. 

Then comes 5G, the latest iteration of mobile internet technology which aims to address poor internet connectivity and disrupt the internet space in the process. 5G benefits do not stop at the assurance of high-speed internet to power through work calls without lag, it also promises economic advantages for the markets that adopt it. 

First, it is worth examining the journey of mobile network connectivity up until 5G which holds the promise of internet breakthrough — the period from 1G, the first generation of mobile network connectivity. According to Qualcomm, a popular manufacturer of innovative hardware and software, 1G emerged in the 1980s and its major highlight was analogue voice, a technology that could only provide voice communication that was often characterised by poor sound quality. The 2G network soon showed up in the early 1990s as the newer iteration, and it brought digital voice which allowed subscribers to enjoy clear voice calls, send text messages (SMS), and even send picture messages (MMS) to one another. Fast forward to the early 2000s and 3G came into existence with improved voice quality, always-on data access, and increased data speeds as its offerings.  In the 2010s, 4G took over as the next big thing and allowed subscribers to stream content at high speeds, download photos at a much better speed than 3G, and much more. 

5G is touted to be greater than the rest of the generations which preceded it. It came about in late 2018 and began rolling out in 2019. Per Qualcomm’s claim, 5G is considerably better than 4G for a couple of reasons. First, it is significantly faster, with more capacity and lower latency, and employs a spectrum that outmatches that of 4G. It boasts several incredible features like higher download speeds and fast network access. 

Africa's Journey to 5G and the Wealth of Opportunities It Brings - Afrocritik
Source – African Development Bank

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Africa is welcoming a surge of interest in 5G, and rightly so. In Nigeria, for instance, telcos like MTN and Airtel have launched their respective 5G services to their millions of customers.  While the network’s availability is domiciled in mostly urban areas and industrial zones, it doesn’t hurt to imagine that one day, rural communities will also gain access to this game-changing technology. The adoption of 5G is booming in regions like North America, but Africa has been slow on the uptake. Thankfully, that reality is changing. 

In 2022, Statista, a data analytics platform, estimated the number of 5G connections in Sub-Saharan Africa to be 3.13 million. On a forward-looking note, it further predicted that the volume of 5G subscribers would grow to 136 million by 2028. Given that the region has an estimated population of 1.18 billion people and coupled with prevailing economic challenges, this is a modest forecast. Meanwhile, the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA), an international organisation keen on unifying the mobile ecosystem, has a different perspective.  It predicts that the number of 5G connections in Sub-Saharan Africa will reach 41 million by 2025, representing a mere 4% of the region’s total connections. This means older generations like 3G and 4G will likely remain relevant in the coming years.  In 2021, the 4G adoption rate was pegged at 17%. GSMA predicts that it will be at 33% by 2025. Meanwhile, the 3G penetration rate is said to drop from 56% in 2022 to 53% in 2025. 

Per another GSMA report, there are also specific use cases of the technology that the African market stands to gain from, provided the right strategy is implemented. For instance, 5G can be a great tool for African markets in the ongoing quest for digital transformation. The Enterprisers Project, a community helping IT leaders solve real-world problems, defines digital transformation as “the integration of digital technology into all areas of a business, fundamentally changing how you operate and deliver value to customers.” It can manifest in various areas including agriculture, medicine, and education. 

In Kenya, for instance, digital transformation in government services is already taking shape. President William Ruto announced on the 30th of June this year that citizens could access 5,000 government services online. In Rwanda, there is Irembo, an online platform that enables citizens to access government services like birth certificate registration and or the application for a certificate of residence. Given that some African governments are transitioning to digital-first service delivery, the demand for a high-speed internet offering could not have been higher. As such, 5G should settle in nicely as a handy means of delivering digital services to citizens. 

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5G could also be valuable in bolstering the efforts of Africa’s tech space. Nowadays, more and more start-ups are emerging with innovative solutions that look to solve market-specific problems. From fintech to health tech to auto-tech, each niche is rife with tonnes of players. Seeing as Africa’s tech startups are constantly seeking ways to design solutions to solve problems on the continent, issues like high latency should be addressed, too. GSMA notes that healthcare, education, agriculture, and entertainment are some of the segments that can benefit from 5G-driven tech innovators. 

Africa is home to a growing demographic of gamers, content creators, and tech enthusiasts. This is partly because the continent has a relatively young population, and today’s world now recognises other job roles aside from the conventional ones. Nowadays, people can become financially independent by exploring the various niches in content creation or becoming a professional Esports player. Whether for streaming one’s content to viewers or connecting to a game’s online servers, a high-performance network is required for the best experience. 5G network deployment can help with this. 

Africa's Journey to 5G and the Wealth of Opportunities It Brings - Afrocritik
Source – The Canadian Times

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That said, deploying 5G is not so straightforward. Today, 3G and 4G networks are still in high demand in Africa due to the reality that 5G-compatible devices are typically expensive. Africa has been hit by a worsening economic situation in recent times, and in many countries, the purchasing power of citizens has drastically reduced today compared to a few years ago. As such, getting people to upgrade their devices to the 5G type will be difficult, primarily due to affordability. The cost of data, too, has increased over the years. According to Statista, one gigabyte of data in São Tomé and Príncipe was sold for $24.49 in 2022. On average, a gigabyte of data costs $4.47 in Africa. 

One way that stakeholders can get more subscribers to jump on the 5G bandwagon is by revisiting existing government policies. By lowering duties on smartphone imports, sellers can adjust their asking price accordingly. Telcos can also consider lowering their tariffs on data seeing as it’s quite expensive across Africa. If the government can consider lowering import duties on smartphones and telcos reduce data tariffs, this should enable more people to upgrade to 5G-compatible smartphones and have no trouble paying for 5G data tariffs. 

Beyond its ability to download files and connect to websites faster than previous generations, 5G has the potential to transform Africa’s economy. The GSMA predicts that 5G will contribute $26 billion to the continent’s economy before 2030. With all these in mind, it is time for stakeholders to adopt a 5G strategy that will eventually meet the internet connectivity needs of everyone, regardless of location. 

Michael Akuchie is a tech journalist with four years of experience covering cybersecurity, AI, automotive trends, and startups. He reads human-angle stories in his spare time. He’s on X (fka Twitter) as @Michael_Akuchie & michael_akuchie on Instagram.

Cover Photo: The Fact Daily

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