Picture: Josep LAGO / AFP / February 28, 2023 – Visitors walk past a 5G sign at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the telecom industry’s biggest annual gathering. Globally, the 5G era formally started in 2019 when the first mobile 5G services were launched in South Korea and the US. Since, 5G commercialisation has gained momentum, with new networks spreading across the world, the writer says.
By Maria Konokhova
As 4G networks continue to expand in Africa, 5G technology with the potential for more has started to penetrate the continent. Even though it’s too early to talk about a mass application of this technology, many experts point at the benefits it could bring to the region.
The successful implementation of 5G in Africa depends on governments’ and private sectors’ commitment to make the rollout and adoption easier, argued tech journalist Daniel Adeyemi in an interview with Sputnik Africa.
According to Adeyemi, governments have a “big role to play” because they regulate this sphere, including granting licenses. He indicated that it currently costs a lot for a company to develop 5th generation mobile technology and get a license. In this regard, it is essential that the business environment is conducive while costs are reduced.
“In terms of regulation, license, it’s important that government makes it easy and uses it so that more companies can get into the space,” he said.
The journalist in particular pointed at the need to develop “simple things” such as basic infrastructure and ensure stable access to electricity. Companies working in this sphere need reliable sources of power, while national grids are often working at far-from-optimum levels. So, Adeyemi emphasised, governments should make their contribution to 5G penetration by improving infrastructure and ensuring better electrical supply.
However, he added, in this regard, the “private sector definitely needs to come in”. Adeyemi explained that the private sector’s role is to lobby and push for better regulations, while the government should put in incentives to attract more players to the field.
“It’s definitely important that more players get into the space. You can’t just leave it for only the telco [telecommunications] companies to do. Everybody is going to benefit from it if there is better access to the Internet,” Adeyemi stressed.
When Will 5G Era Dawn in Africa?
Globally, the 5G era formally started in 2019 when the first mobile 5G services were launched in South Korea and the US. Since, 5G commercialisation has gained momentum, with new networks spreading across the world. South Africa was the first country on the Continent to launch 5G technology, followed by a handful of other African states.
According to Adeyemi, there are 11 African countries that have already tested 5G or had discussions on this topic. He named such countries as Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and Botswana, noting that there are also talks in Kenya, Ethiopia, Seychelles, and Egypt. He added that as for commercial adoption and a broader reach of users, only about five countries have started to implement this technology.
“I think I’ve used 5G in Nigeria and South Africa, but about five countries really have rolled it out for commercial adoption,” he said.
Adeyemi described this rollout as “very slow” in comparison to the West. In the US, at least 50 percent of the population have access to 5G, and about 70 percent in the UK.
According to a recent report, 5G adoption in Africa will stand at about 10 percent by 2030. However, he noted, “it’s pretty dicey” because Africa lags behind in terms of development, access to technology, even when it comes to implementing 4G. Therefore, for 5G, it may take more time than one can assume, he concluded.
“It’s not just an issue of will from the telcos. There are so many moving parts that need to align,” the journalist explained, adding: “I’m sure by then they probably will be talking about 6G.”
Adeyemi underscored that “the bright side of the increasing adoption of 5G is that the threshold is now moving.” According to him, when people are thinking about moving to 5G, it means that they already have “better access to Internet that enables us to do basic things”, and strive for more.
The GSMA report has indicated that the 2020-2030 period will be pivotal for the connectivity landscape on the Continent. It is estimated that by the end of this decade, 4G and 5G will account for approximately two-thirds of total mobile connections in Africa. Moreover, the report highlighted that 5G could benefit the African economy by reaping in $26 billion to its GDP between 2021 and 2030.
Long-Term Benefits of 5G
5G technology is a massive step forward from 3G and 4G that most of people across the globe are used to, and promises to unlock great opportunities in education, health, entertainment, economy and business.
Adeyemi stated that the adoption of this innovative technology will lead to an increase in connectivity speed, communication and access to information, and thus, to education, making it easier for people to learn virtually.
Better Internet access means better “connection between the students and the teachers”, when they don’t have an opportunity to meet in person. According to Adeyemi, students will be able to get quick feedback and to be better guided on what they are missing out. While studying via the Internet, people “are not constrained by the concept of class size and physical infrastructure”. At the same time, people who have better access to education and can learn more, while also being able “to contribute to society”.
As 5G is mostly about faster Internet, the adoption of this technology will provide people in rural areas with access to the same opportunities that people in urban areas have. He noted that the Internet is one of the main reasons why people live in cities, so they “would actually not mind living in these places and developing them”, if there is better Internet connectivity there.
“It could lead to deployment of these rural areas because people will now be more open to actually live there,” he added.
As for healthcare, he recalled that the Covid-19 pandemic showed the world the importance of Internet access. Telemedicine services could be really helpful for patients living in remote areas, when a “split-second or one-minute access to a doctor could be the difference between death and life situations”.
However, current problems of bandwidth in virtual education or telemedicine raise the need for real-time actions, and therefore, need better Internet connection and speed than “we have on 4G or 3G”.
“So there’s a lot of talk about getting access to information in real-time, and that helps improve a lot of activities. It helps improve business transactions and a lot of that […]. All of this will lead to an increase in productivity. An increase in productivity will boost the economic development of Africa,” he said.
Adeyemi added that better Internet penetration and speed also means that people have more job opportunities as they can work remotely. This would often save time in commuting, increasing productivity for many people.
He also mentioned benefits in agriculture, stating that farmers can get real-time access to insights and information that will enable them to increase their yield, and therefore produce more goods for export, increasing revenue and GDP.
“I think that if you look at the different facets, and I’m sure I’m not covering all, but just by looking at all of this and connecting it, you can see that definitely this is how 5G technology, specifically fast access to Internet, would drive economic growth and development in Africa,” Adeyemi concluded.
Key Factors of 5G Rollout in Africa
Speaking about the challenges facing Africa’s 5G rollout, Adeyemi pointed at an unreliable electricity supply and some regulation issues that should be addressed by governments.
He also noted that it is necessary to ensure better access to equipment and 5G-compatible devices. According to the journo, many people want to try this out, but can’t afford it financially. In this regard, he expressed his hope that in the next two or four years there will be lower-end devices that have access to 5G.
Apart from that, it is of critical importance to improve infrastructure, as it significantly affects the rollout speed for telecommunications companies. However, this process needs large-scale investments, given the high costs of “laying cables in areas where there are no cables”.
“Telcos at a snap of a finger, they would like to roll this out, but they have to count their costs and look at which areas will be lucrative and also look at the cost of rolling out,” he said.
He underscored that 5G implementation also depends on how fast people adopt and use it, as “there’s only a return on investment if people use it”. There is a need for more support for this technology, more use cases and more positive feedback, so that the sphere will be able to develop and gain momentum on the Continent. He added that Africans can’t be left behind the rest of the world, given the potential benefits the technology can help to unlock.
“I think in general, positive feedback and experience [help massify the rollout], the more people who use it and the more people give feedback, the more use cases exist, the more there will be a need to say: ‘Hey, let’s move to 5G’,” the journalist said.
This article was first published in Sputnik