Is 5G Technology A Leapfrog Too Far For Africa?

Written by Tom Jackson

Back in January, South African mobile operator MTN and Ericsson announced Africa’s first 5G technology and applications trial, which is part of a 5G demonstration starting in the first quarter of 2018.

The 5G trial achieved a throughput of more than 20Gbps with less than 5ms latency, which is the highest achieved on a mobile network in Africa. MTN said it has tested a range of 5G use cases, and expects to see commercial deployment in the near future.

MTN Group chief information officer (CIO) Babak Fouladi says the operator is “pushing the boundaries”, and that 5G gives it the opportunity to “rethink how its business can add further value to the lives of our customers”.

Ericsson’s head of Middle East and Africa, Rafiah Ibrahim, said the 5G trial supported its strategy of “delivering next-generation mobile broadband, cloud as well as providing support for massive internet of things (IoT) deployment”.

But is this all really necessary at this time, when so much of the African population is still not connected to any form of internet at all? Not according to Frost & Sullivan Africa senior ICT industry analyst Naila Govan-Vassen.

“Despite significant strides to connect the unconnected, about 50 percent of Africa’s population still does not have access to mobile services,” she said.

“The focus on the continent is, and should be, to provide them with basic connectivity, let alone 5G.”

But 5G technology is still market-dependent

The speed with which mobile operators rush to adopt 5G will, however, depend on the market in which they are operating.

There is a significant gap in terms of technology uptake in Africa, with more developed economies like South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria having significant 4G coverage. The likes of the DRC, Ethiopia and Eritrea, meanwhile, still struggle to provide basic connectivity.

5G is only relevant to those more developed economies. Thecla Mbongue, senior research analyst at Ovum, says 5G would benefit segments such as video, industrial automation, smart cities, and health.

“While the demand for video is still largely driven by the consumer segment, the growth from the other services is driven by enterprises and public sector entities,” she said.

Govan-Vassen said IoT applications, video content and the emergence of smart cities are expected to be the key drivers of the demand for 5G networks on the continent in the long-term.

“However, this is likely to be limited to the more advanced African economies, in the medium term,” she said. “The application of 5G in the rest of the region seems less relevant. Beyond these countries, the use case for 5G networks may not currently be relevant due to capacity requirements of the network and the high cost of 5G-enabled devices.”

This is further demonstrated by the differences in uptake of bandwidth-intensive applications – like VOD, cloud, and big data – in South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya when compared to the rest of the continent.

For example, despite their size, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Ivory Coast are still some way behind in terms of cloud adoption.

“The business case for investing in 5G may not be as compelling in the short-term because of low income levels. Also, enterprises in these countries may not have the need for applications that require 5G networks,” Govan-Vassen said.

Another major challenge for operators will be the availability of spectrum. South Africa, for example, is still struggling to move towards even 4G networks because of the unavailability of spectrum.

“Meeting the spectrum requirements is key to efficient technology rollout. In summary, most of the required spectrum is unused in Africa, but timely availability may be delayed,” said Mbongue.

Another key requirement is network energy efficiency.

“Powering networks has been an issue across Africa, where, in many countries, lack of constant electricity supply puts pressure on operators OPEX and impact negatively network performances,” Mbongue said.

The high speeds being promised by 5G come from larger spectrum channels available above 6GHz; but using such spectrum comes with challenges. Mbongue said it is not mobile, has a limited range and thus poor network coverage, and is very susceptible to interference.

“As a result, 5G technology in Africa might be set to serve niche segments and deployed in patchy and limited coverage,” she said.

That is presumably where MTN and Ericsson see the opportunities, in serving niche enterprise segments. But with so many Africans not connected to the internet at all, you could forgive many people for wondering why 5G remains such a fascination, in spite of all its evident challenges and the fact for many even 2G is still a pipe dream.

Tom Jackson is co-founder of Disrupt Africa, a news and research company focused on the African tech startup ecosystem.