Nigerians in seven cities, including Lagos and Abuja, will get a taste of how 5G internet connectivity works in a few weeks as MTN begins a formal open pilot of the technology. “Customers with certain enabled devices will be allowed to connect with and try out the new service where coverage is available,” the company said in a statement.
The pilot comes after Nigeria’s telecommunications regulator auctioned off 3.5GHz spectrum licenses to MTN and Mafab Communications last December, at a reported cost of $273 million each. MTN announced its pilot on Aug. 24, the kick-off date slated by the regulator back in May. Mafab received a 5-month extension to begin its own operation in 2023.
That leaves MTN as Nigeria’s 5G first-mover which could see it consolidate its decades-long leadership of the local telecoms industry where it owns a 38% share of the country’s 206 million GSM subscribers, more than its competition Airtel, Globacom, and 9Mobile.
What will the population coverage be when MTN launches 5G in full?
Connecting to 5G will depend on having requisite routers and smartphones. MTN has started advertising these devices for pre-order, with the option of pick-up from its stores or doorstep delivery. But for all the potential excitement, the rollout will be a gradual, progressive process, says Karl Toriola, CEO of MTN Nigeria.
“Most advanced countries in the world have no more than 11 to 20% coverage of 5G,” he said, on a chat hosted today (Aug. 25) by Endeavor Nigeria, an entrepreneurship support organization. “Our full launch will be limited coverage but we are always going to lead in the capacity for 5G. We are going to take advantage of this time where we are the only ones providing this capacity to accelerate as aggressively as we can.”
With the potential to add $2.2 trillion to Africa’s economy by 2034 (pdf), about 13 countries on the continent are at different stages of 5G deployment. Still, commercial 5G availability is very limited to a handful of African cities, mostly in South Africa where MTN is behind most of the launch (MTN Group is based in South Africa). Econet Wireless has commercial 5G in two Zimbabwean cities, while Safaricom has limited availability in Nairobi and two other Kenyan cities.
In Nigeria, Toriola expects MTN to take advantage of its head start. “On 5G technology, we are going to be undisputed leaders. I am not going to commit to you [on population coverage] because I still need to get my next year’s budget approved but we are going to be aggressive,” he said.