Sub-Saharan Africa has been conspicuously missing from the global 5G story so far, and for good reason. 2G is still the dominant technology in the region, at least until the end of this year, while 4G, which accounts for just 8 per cent of total connections compared to the global average of 46 per cent, is far from mass adoption. There is also the issue of device affordability, which has stymied 4G adoption. With the first wave of 5G devices likely to target the top end of the market, it is not hard to imagine the impact device costs could have on 5G adoption in the region.

Against this backdrop, it is easy to see why the notion of 5G in sub-Saharan Africa may come across as an oxymoron to some people. But is it? 5G attracted a lot of attention at this years’ Mobile360 Africa conference, with numerous mentions on the conference stage and side chats during coffee breaks, even though the subject was not officially on the agenda. I quickly noticed that more people talked about the prospects for 5G in the region at this year’s event, compared to 2018, where 5G and Africa were hardly used in the same sentence.

So, what has changed? Nothing much in terms of Africa’s readiness for 5G or actual 5G-related activities. However, there was a realisation that 5G, as a natural progression from previous generations, will one day become a reality in the region. This in itself raised several pertinent questions among participants, for example when will the 5G era will arrive in the region; which markets will lead the transition to 5G; how should stakeholders, including policymakers, operators and vendors, prepare for the 5G era; and what would the 5G the business case for the region look like, given the network deployment requirements and consumer peculiarities?

An earlier blog captures the contrasting views of operators and vendors to some of these questions at the event.

GSMA Intelligence’s new report 5G in Sub-Saharan Africa: laying the foundations directly addresses these other issues more deeply. The report reflects the perspectives of policymakers, operators, and vendors, and lays out key expectations and considerations for the 5G era, some of which are highlighted below:

  • 5G mass deployment and adoption is not likely until the second half of the next decade – Most people agree that 5G in Africa is a question of when rather than if. However, it will not be until mid to late 2020s before 5G network deployment and adoption becomes more widespread across the region. Only a handful of countries, including South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria, are expected to have commercial 5G services before 2025 (see chart, below, click to enlarge).

  • Enterprises will lead 5G adoption in Africa – 5G will play a key role in addressing the connectivity needs of enterprises, given the challenges around access, cost and reliability of existing solutions, such as fixed broadband and satellite. However, deployments will need to be localised and targeted, as opposed to ubiquitous and mass market, considering the cost implications for the requisite cell densification. Beyond connectivity, 5G can enable new business processes to drive productivity and efficiency in closed ecosystem environments, particularly in large, consolidated sectors such as mining and manufacturing. However, our research shows a lack of awareness and understanding of the potential of the technology among enterprises. For operators and their vendor partners, the challenge will be to increase awareness and develop relevant use cases.
  • The consumer segment will be a long-term play – Affordability will be a crucial factor for 5G adoption in the consumer segment. At around $1,000 on average, the cost of 5G handsets today is way beyond the reach of most consumers in the region. While this is expected to fall over time, it is not certain when the market will see sub-$100 devices, the price point at which mass adoption can begin to take place, given the experience of 4G. Meanwhile, immersive use cases such as AR and VR, for which 5G’s low latency capability is well suited, are still underdeveloped in the region. This means that 3G and 4G will remain the primary consumer mobile broadband access technologies for the foreseeable future.
  • Ecosystem collaboration will be essential to ease the transition to 5G – Given the cost burden of network deployment and the need to address consumer barriers to broadband adoption, our research identified four areas where ecosystem collaboration could facilitate the transition to 5G. These are: content creation to stimulate demand for connectivity; solutions for cost effective network deployment; initiatives to bring affordable devices to market; and development of 5G use cases for local enterprises. Take network deployment, for example, operators could collaborate on active network sharing, which has been shown to deliver much higher levels of both capex and opex savings compared to passive. Vendors can also explore new ways of financing network investment, such as the lease-to-own-model, to reduce the upfront capital outlay for operators.

As governments and enterprises across Africa increasingly use technology to tackle the biggest challenges faced by society, and digital trends point to growing demand for enhanced connectivity, 5G will no doubt play a key role in the future connectivity landscape. The technology will support the implementation of transformative technologies, such as AI and IoT, that can improve industrial processes and generate significant social and economic benefits for individuals and communities.

While this scenario is still several years away for most countries in the region, now is the time for ecosystem players including policymakers, operators and vendors, to begin to put in place the necessary building blocks on spectrum, network modernisation, consumer and enterprise use cases, and other relevant areas to maximise value in the 5G era.

– Kenechi Okeleke – senior manager – GSMA Intelligence

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.