Africa is at least five years away from faster 4G mobile networks having a major impact

Image: Reuters/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
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If you’re waiting on 4G networks to become the standard for mobile connectivity in Africa imminently, you may have to wait a bit longer.

Projections in the GSMA Mobile economy report for 2019 show 4G networks accounted for a meager 7% of mobile connections across sub Saharan Africa at the end of 2018, compared to the global average of 44%. Given slow uptake owing to “high cost of 4G-enabled devices and delays in assigning 4G spectrum to established service providers,” there’s unlikely to be rapid growth for another half decade.

In fact, 3G networks will only overtake 2G networks as the top connection technology on the continent by the end of 2019. That’s down to continued investment in network coverage expansion by telecoms operators as well as increased availability of cheaper smartphones partly due to manufacturers focused on producing phones mainly for African users. 3G connections will account for around 45% of total connections in sub Saharan Africa at the end of the year. For its part, 4G connections are projected to only overtake 2G by 2023 and account for 23% of mobile connections in the region by 2025.

While connection technology slowly improves, rapid adoption of mobiles in Africa will continue over the next half decade. With sub Saharan Africa still the fastest growing region for mobile subscriptions globally, total subscriber base in the region is projected to surpass 600 million by 2025. Put another way, mobile subscriptions will account for around half of the region’s population. But it’s worth noting the projected user base will also include individual users who have multiple sim cards—a common phenomenon across the region.

The continued growth of mobile subscriptions will also be reflected in mobile internet usage with around 483 million people projected to use mobile internet by 2025—double the number of users at the end of 2018.

While the frequent internet shutdowns in sub Saharan African countries currently hobble access for users, there’s increasing economic disincentive for governments to restrict access. GSMA, the mobile industry trade body, estimates mobile technologies and services contributed $144 billion in economic value—or 8.6% of GDP—in sub-Saharan African countries. But some countries will have more reason than others based on the size of the mobile markets. Across the region, just five countries are projected to account for half of the 167 million new mobile subscriptions projected to be added by 2025.

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