The adoption of the much-talked-about 5G network appears to be on the rise in Africa, with South Africa leading the pack, according to a new report released by Washington-based telecommunications market research and consulting firm, TeleGeography.
The report, GlobalComms Database Service, which tracked 5G deployments in the Middle East and Africa (MEA), found that as of March 2023, 18 countries in the region are served by commercial 5G services — eight in the Middle East and 10 in Africa.
Saudi Arabia leads the MEA market with over 11.2 million users at the end of 2022, equivalent to more than a quarter of the mobile sector. Holding the second place is South Africa, which had an estimated 5 million subscriptions at the end of last year.
Why South Africa?
No African country has made more progress than South Africa deploying the 5G network. In September 2019, South Africa’s data-only network provider Rain became Africa’s first telco to deploy the network commercially. In January 2020, the Zimbabwe-based pan-Africa network operator announced the launch of the first 5G wholesale roaming service in South Africa.
Vodacom launched its commercial 5G network in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Pretoria in May 2020. The following month, MTN launched 5G services across 100 network towers in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Bloemfontein, Port Elizabeth and several smaller towns.
Since South Africa spearheaded the 5G race on the continent, other countries have followed suit. Last year, in particular, saw a flurry of 5G launches in Africa, as services were introduced to Botswana and Zimbabwe in February, Nigeria and Tanzania in September, and Zambia in November.
In February, the South African government gave telecom operators a five-year deadline to finalize the rollout of 4G and 5G mobile networks, as the country aims to accelerate broadband migration. Vodacom, South Africa’s biggest mobile operator by subscriber base, has the fastest 5G download speed in the country, topping the 200 Mbit/s mark, according to a new Mobile Network Experience Report from mobile analytics company Opensignal.
But the adoption of the 5G technology in South Africa — like the rest of the continent — hasn’t been without hitches. For one, 5G requires significant infrastructure investments in terms of fibre networks. Little wonder mobile operators in South Africa are enmeshed in a battle to outdo one another to dominate the 5G market.
Meanwhile, experts have said that 5G has failed to deliver on its promise of faster connectivity. For context, South Africa, which boasts the highest internet speed on the continent, has an average mobile internet download speed of 68.9 megabits per second (MBps), compared with the global average mobile download speed of 77.7 Mbps.
South Africa’s internet quality ranks 62nd in the world and is 8% worse than the global average, per the 2022 Digital Quality of Life Index (DQL) by Surfshark. With load shedding threatening internet usage in South Africa, 5G will most likely be affected too. Interestingly, South Africans are the most internet-addicted persons in the world, spending an average of 578 minutes (nine hours and 38 minutes) online daily last year, three hours more than the global average.
Where is the rest of Africa?
According to TeleGeography’s report, Mauritius holds second place in Africa in terms of 5G subscriptions, with a total of 80,000, representing 3.8% of its total mobile subscriptions. Trailing behind is Nigeria with 50,000 subscriptions, followed by Togo and Seychelles with 33,000 and 16,140 5G users, respectively.
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5G is still struggling in Africa
According to a GSM Association (GSMA) report, the mobile telecommunications industry trade body, 5G will only account for 4% of total connections in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2025. But mobile networks cover about 83% of Africa’s population, and only about 22% have internet access, GSMA disclosed in its The State of Mobile Internet Connectivity 2022 report.
Just a few telecom subscribers in Sub-Saharan Africa have access to 4G broadband. In 2020, only 7% of Africa’s 774 million mobile connections were 4G, way lower than the 44% global average. According to the biannual report by Stockholm-headquartered telecommunications company Ericsson, the number of 4G subscriptions grew by 26 % in 2021.
By the end of Q1 2022, less than 30% of mobile broadband subscriptions in Africa were 4G, while over 70% of subscriptions were 2G/3G. According to the GSMA report on the mobile economy in Sub-Saharan Africa, 4G will only overtake 2G in 2023 after 3G adoption peaked in 2022. It will take until 2027 for 4G mobile subscriptions to overtake other mobile internet subscriptions in Sub-Saharan Africa, while 4G subscriptions will account for just under 50%, and 5G subscriptions will still be less than 4%, according to Dataxis.
Throw in the mix the affordability barriers in purchasing 5G-enabled devices. CEO Peter Ndegwa, CEO of Safaricom, Kenya’s largest mobile network, last year said that “the adoption of 5G smartphones remains low, largely due to the high cost of the devices”. For example, the price for the MTN 5G router in Nigeria is around N50,000, almost twice the country’s minimum wage. The point remains clear: a large chunk of Africans can’t afford 5G.