When Ethiopia announced on May 9 that it was launching trials for its first 5G mobile network in its capital, it joined more than a dozen African countries that are either testing or have rolled out the next-gen network. But just as for its 5G peers, the journey isn’t going to be smooth.
Governments in Africa are optimistic that they will one day use 5G to do large-scale farming using drones, introduce autonomous cars into roads, plug into the metaverse, activate smart homes and improve cyber security. Some analysts predict that 5G will add an additional $2.2 trillion to Africa’s economy by 2034.
But Africa’s 5G first movers are facing teething problems that stand to delay their 5G goals. The challenges have revolved around spectrum regulation clarity, commercial viability, deployment deadlines, and low citizen purchasing power of 5G enabled smartphones, and expensive internet.
Where things stand for Africa’s 5G pioneers
Ethiopia is joining Botswana, Egypt, Gabon, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mauritius, Nigeria, Senegal, Seychelles, South Africa, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, when it comes to testing or deploying 5G. But many of these countries are facing delays.
Botswana: On Feb. 25, Botswana’s Mascom unveiled 5G to residents of the capital Gaborone. It started with four sites in the city, with a plan to lay more than 100 base stations by the end of 2022.
Egypt: Last February, Orange received spectrum from the Egyptian government that now allows it to test 5G networks just like Vodafone Egypt, Egypt Telecom and Etisalat Egypt. Though promising, Egyptians will have to wait for 5G services.
Gabon: Since it started testing the technology in November 2019, Gabon’s Gabon Telecom is yet to go commercial. Its CEO is targeting 2023.
Kenya: Ethiopia’s southern neighbor, has been testing the technology for a year now, but internet subscribers will have to wait till the end of the year, when the country’s telecoms regulator is expected to have issued mobile operators with 5G licenses. The country is expected to account for more than half of the continent’s tiny number of 5G mobile subscriptions in 2026.
Lesotho: Since Vodacom was given a temporary spectrum by the Lesotho government in 2018 to experiment with 5G technology, it has been a journey of pain. Wrangles between Vodacom, Econet and the regulator have hindered any meaningful 5G roll-out.
Madagascar: In July 2020, Madagascar’s Telma followed South Africa to launch a commercial 5G but three weeks later, the country’s regulator told the company to halt its plans.
Mauritius: On July 30 last year, the government of Mauritius announced the country’s first 5G network deployment to cover four zones but didn’t share plans for a fully commercial roll-out.
Nigeria: The continent’s largest economy, issued spectrum licenses in March, and is hoping to possess the widest 5G network in the continent this year. It is looking at August for commercial deployment.
Senegal: Since their first 5G tests in November 2020, Senegal’s Sonatel and Orange continue to do a number of trials in Dakar but the network still remains largely unoperational.
Seychelles: Citizens greeted the country’s 5G launch in 2020 with mistrust, expressing concern over health hazards. A year later, citizens in six regions are getting faster speeds of 1.2Gbps from Cable and Wireless Seychelles, for up to 100GB of use.
South Africa: The continent’s earliest adopter of 5G rolled out the technology on a temporary spectrum, but amid heavy strain on networks during the pandemic, Vodacom, Rain, and MTN were ordered to suspend that use from November 2021. In March, the country earned nearly $1 billion from its long-awaited 5G spectrum auction.
Uganda: In January 2020, Uganda became the first east African nation to test the possibility of launching a 5G network with ZTE and MTN. But a commercial launch is yet to happen.
Zimbabwe: On Feb. 24, Zimbabwe’s Econet announced that it had launched the country’s first 5G network and would activate two dozen sites by this month.
Expensive 5G smartphones slow adoption
Safaricom, the operator leading 5G adoption in Kenya, this month said that the high cost of 5G-enabled smartphones is slowing down the company’s ambition to offer mobile 5G services. The cheapest smartphone with a 5G smartphone in the continent goes for about $300, which is very expensive for the average African. One study in Kenya revealed that 94% of the population owns devices costing less than $200.
“That’s one of the reasons why we are focusing more on the 4G side and leaving 5G to serve the homes,” Safaricom CEO Peter Ndegwa told the Business Daily newspaper.
Africa needs to work hard on 4G first
The desire to catch up with the rest of the world has seen improvements in the existing 4G networks on which most countries plan to switch on 5G. As of 2019, 4G internet signals covered about half the continent, according to the industry body GSMA. Yet only 10% of Africa’s population presently uses 4G, a recent report from telecom firm Vodacom said.
Even more detrimental to the 5G dream is the fact that 4G network services in Africa are only available in urban and peri-urban areas as many providers try to deploy internet in areas with high usage to remain profitable, leaving villages years away from experiencing higher speed internet.
For now, 3G is still adding users. And the reality is that 42 African states are yet to start thinking about 5G.