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The 5G “revolution” is underway in Africa—but it remains a long way off from reality

A vendor speaks on his mobile phone as he waits for customers at his roadside shop selling clothes in Mumbai
Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
The call for 5G may have come too early.
  • Yomi Kazeem
By Yomi Kazeem

Africa reporter

Published

To gauge the progress of 5G networks in Africa, consider this stat: 5G connections will account for only 3% of the total mobile connections on the continent by 2025.

While the rest of the world races to make the technology become the standard, it is pretty clear that mass adoption of the 5G networks is not yet on the cards in Africa.

In fact, the 5G networks launched by Vodacom and MTN in South Africa are the only ones in operation across sub-Saharan Africa. But even this has happened ahead of schedule with the South African government assigning temporary spectrum in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, ostensibly to boost broadband connectivity with millions working from home amid a national lockdown. Deployment remains in infancy stages elsewhere on the continent with trials conducted in Gabon, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda so far.

5G networks come with the promise of even more speed and capacity than currently exists. On a granular level, it will mean faster connectivity for mobile users and wider capabilities for businesses and governments to operate digitally. For more context, while it takes 22 minutes to download a high-definition movie on a 4G network, it will only take 32 seconds on a 5G network. As an illustration of the deepened capacity: 5G networks are also projected to be able to service a million devices within a square kilometer—100 times more than 4G networks can handle in the same area.

But, as data from the GSMA Mobile Economy report shows, 3G will remain the most dominant network (58%) for the 1.05 billion mobile connections projected in Africa by 2025. “The focus in the near term for operators and other stakeholders is to increase 4G uptake,” the report states. Indeed, 4G connections are expected to account for only 27% of mobile connections by 2025—up from 4% today.

 

But despite low growth and deployment rates for 5G networks on the continent, key progress will be scored on other fronts over the next five years. Mobile network operators are expected to rapidly scale up 5G-related investment across Africa, laying the ground for faster deployment rates in the future. While 5G currently accounts for less than 10% of capital expenditure for telcos, increased investment will see it grow to account for more than half of operators’ capex by as early as 2024.

Regardless of the networks powering them, mobile connections in Africa remain on pace for continued growth: sub-Saharan Africa is expected to add 130 million new subscribers by 2025 with half of that growth spurt coming from Nigeria, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Kenya. The continent’s strong focus on mobile will also see 475 million people using mobile internet in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2025 while smartphone connections will almost double to reach 678 million by the end of 2025.

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