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Is Africa ready for 5G?

Kate Hairsine
November 29, 2019

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.

5G mobile masts
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Zhouyou

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

After live 5G demonstrations in Abuja and Calabar this week, MTN plans to showcase the technology in several other Nigerian cities during the three-month trial period.

Nigeria hopes to start rolling out 5G in select cities in 2020 – one of the few African countries that have committed to the new mobile technology. Gabon is also holding trials, while Lesotho and South Africa have small networks up and running.

But what is all the hype about and is Africa really ready for 5G?

What is 5G?

5G is the abbreviation for fifth generation. It's the next generation of mobile internet technology and comes on the heels of the 4G LTE standard.

5G promises radically faster download and upload times. Websites will open in microseconds, and videos will download in seconds rather in minutes.

5G also has significantly less latency or lag – the delay that causes the annoying echoes and video flickers when you're talking on WhatsApp or playing video games online.

5G symbol
5G is expected to become more widespread across Africa from the mid-2020sImage: picture-alliance/dpa Themendienst/Z. Scheurer

"I think 5G really has the capability to change the way humans live dramatically because the time in which data is sent and received is dramatically reduced. From the human perspective, it's almost instant," Muyiwa Matuluko, editor-in-chief of Techpoint Africa, tech-focused platform based in Nigeria, told DW.

"We can begin think of all the things that that enables, from artificial intelligence to virtual reality and self-driving cars, or remote medical surgery. So I am really excited about it," Matuluko said on the phone from Lagos.

How does 5G work?

5G uses radio waves to transmit and receive data between an antenna or mast and your phone.

It relies on higher radio frequencies than earlier mobile technology. These can't travel as far other frequencies so 5G networks need a denser network of base stations or masts. Because of this, 5G is better suited to densely populated urban areas where many people are going online at the same time.

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.

A report on 5G in Africa by GSMA, a global trade organization for mobile operators, estimates that only seven African countries, 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.

What's holding African countries back?

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.

Going hungry for mobile data in South Africa

As Techpoint's Muyiwa Matuluko puts it, "the challenge in Africa is the consumer."

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."

Why should Africa bother with 5G then?

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%.

Person with hands on a computer
Business will drive the initial push for 5G in Africa, experts sayImage: picture-alliance/Photoshot

So instead of investing in burying fiber cables in the ground, African countries could invest in newer 5G and "leapfrog [their] way to high-speed connectivity," says Matuluko.

He also imagines 5G bringing tremendous benefits in fields such as health, in the form of telemedicine, and remote education.

With better quality internet calls and low lag, remote surgery done over a video connection could become a reality.

And as for education, "5G could enable live streaming a virtual reality classroom. You can imagine students being able to sit where ever they are and take classes in Harvard without having to to be there," he said.

Won't Africa miss the digital boom if it doesn't embrace 5G?

Not necessarily.

"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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