Murray Steyn
Murray Steyn Executive Head: Wholesale

While 5G is dominating conversations about the future of ICT in developed nations, it might seem a bit early to be discussing its rollout in Africa, especially since 3G has not yet reached full market penetration.

It’s worth factoring into the picture of the continent’s future because of its impact, which will fuel sufficient demand to drive forward the phenomenon, but several hurdles have to be overcome first.

What 5G can do for Africa

A lack of access to water, electricity, public healthcare and education are matters of concern, in varying degrees, across Africa. Addressing connectivity needs can help to unlock economic growth to boost the efforts of African nations to overcome these challenges. There’s no doubt that expanding connectivity is a powerful and effective way to accelerate a region’s economic development.

This assertion is backed by research, specifically that of the World Bank, with a frequently referenced study titled Building Broadband: Strategies and Policies for the Developing World. It concludes that a mere 10% increase in broadband penetration rates will result in a 1.38% increase in GDP in developing economies.

A clear example of the positive impact that mobile technology can have in Africa can be seen with the way 3G connectivity in Kenya paved the way for M-Pesa, a mobile-based money transfer, financing and microfinancing service. The result has been the increased financial inclusion of the country’s poorest from 21% to 63% over the space of just three years. This reflects how the broadband boost that 5G represents will, in turn, boost the competitiveness of local businesses, making it possible for them to compete in a global market and to embrace digital transformation.

5G networks will be the key to unlocking the full potential of the Internet of Things in Africa. The technology’s applications in agriculture alone could have a momentous impact on crop outputs and water conservation, aiding local farmers while simultaneously ensuring food security.

Simply put, 5G will make information more accessible, and this offers a myriad exciting possibilities for improving lives, growing economies and conserving resources.

Challenges to overcome

The GSM Association’s latest report, The Mobile Economy: Sub-Saharan Africa 2018, forecasts the emergence of commercial 5G in Africa by 2021 with an estimated 400 000 connections, growing to almost 12 million (3% of the total number of connections) by 2025. More developed nations, like South Africa and Kenya, are sure to drive the uptake of 5G, but as the economic benefits become apparent the adoption rate is likely to accelerate in other regions too.

As can be expected, infrastructure costs will be the biggest hurdle to overcome for the rollout of 5G. Fibre is a critical enabler for 5G because it’s capable of carrying 5G’s heavy data load between cell towers and network nodes, a practice known as fibre backhauling. Most of Africa lags behind in terms of cell tower density, so while the fibre land grab is well under way, many regions still have a way to go to install the required amount of fibre to facilitate adequate backhauling to support 5G mobile networks. For now, providers still need to support legacy technology – namely 3G and 4G – while simultaneously investing in newer technology, which requires something of a balancing act.

Another hurdle (particularly in South Africa) is the availability of spectrum. It’s becoming increasingly difficult and expensive for operators to expand their mobile networks in the absence of additional spectrum, putting pressure on operators and impeding the market. The lack of spectrum means that wireless backhauling can’t be used to support 5G in the absence of adequate fibre capacity. It’s hoped that the spectrum issue will be resolved soon. In September 2018, President Cyril Ramaphosa assured the nation that government was working to accelerate the licensing of the radio frequency spectrum in the 2.6Ghz, 700Mhz and 800Mhz bands.

However, even when that coveted spectrum is released, the rollout of 5G is going to take some time. Although they are in development, 5G-capable devices have not yet entered the market and once they do, their widespread distribution will not happen overnight. It is therefore not anticipated that mass rollout of 5G will become a reality in South Africa sooner than 2020/1.

Cutting-edge solutions from IS

IS offers an extensive range of wholesale solutions for partners to leverage over a constantly growing network – it’s the largest managed services network in Africa. While technologies like 5G might still be a way off,  it’s worth considering how you can expand your African footprint by partnering with a telecommunications service provider in the meantime.

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