Nigeria has picked up the pace to join Kenya and South Africa to become one of the countries pioneering 5G deployment in Africa.
The country’s latest move to prepare for national activation of 5G happened earlier this month, when its communications agency signed a memorandum of understanding with communications satellite firm NigcomSat, to allow 5G services to ride on its C-band frequency spectrum (this spectrum accounts for 60-70% of the commercial deployment of 5G networks globally).
“The importance of this spectrum for early deployment of 5G services in Nigeria cannot be overemphasized,” Umar Garba Danbatta, vice chair of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), said in a statement.
In 2019, Nigeria became the first West African country to initiate 5G network trials when its biggest telecoms provider, MTN Nigeria, ran spectrum tests in its offices across several locations. With support from mobile operators like Huawei, ZTE and Ericsson, the initial demos proved successful.
In June last year, the NCC began coordinating with stakeholders to create policies governing the commercial implementation of 5G. Last year the government also began to actively dispel health-related concerns regarding the technology and conspiracy theories associating 5G with the coronavirus pandemic.
Prior to its 5G demos in Nigeria, MTN conducted similar trials in South Africa before launching 5G publicly last July together with Vodacom. Kenya followed swiftly on an official rollout last month, making it the second African country to deploy 5G according to the GSMA, an organization representing mobile network operators worldwide. It defines the rollout of a commercial 5G network as one in which a customer can purchase a 5G subscription.
Nigerian regulators have been quick to welcome the possibilities and promises of faster speed, enhanced capacity, and reduced latency that accompany the 5th generation of cellular technology. The NCC has high hopes that the tech will “improve the way Nigerians live and work” by advancing smart transportation, medicine, manufacturing, the internet of things, and more.
It aims to deploy the first phase of its 5G network by the end of 2021.
Africa’s non-linear 5G deployment
Beyond Nigeria and across Africa, about 18 African countries have started testing 5G, including Lesotho, Gabon and Egypt. Given how few countries have officially launched the technology, GSMA says that widespread 5G adoption in sub-Saharan Africa “is inevitable but not imminent.”
As such, 5G rollout in Africa is expected to take place in fits and spurts in the next few years. Most markets in the region will be slow to pursue it, says GSMA, since “existing technologies are capable of supporting current use cases and demand for mobile internet connectivity.”
One of the biggest concerns that may prevent the mass adoption of 5G in sub-Saharan Africa is low mass penetration of previous cellular generations. 3G and 4G networks only overtook 2G in 2019.
There are also major gaps in coverage overall—a quarter of people on the continent aren’t covered by a mobile broadband signal, and half of those that are don’t use the internet, what’s referred to as the “usage gap”. Between 2014 and 2019, the usage gap on the continent widened by 13% due to slow growth in newly covered areas.
The same struggle is seen on the national level. Nigeria, for instance, didn’t attain a goal it had set for 2018 of reaching 80% 3G/4G penetration. A 2019 report by Jumia on the mobile market estimated that only 4% of Nigerian mobile subscribers were on the 4G network, with 44% still relying on 3G technology, compared to South Africa and Angola where 4G penetration is 18% and 16% respectively. Yet, the government is aiming for 90% of its population to have access to 4G and 5G connections by 2025.
At the same time, Nigeria has struggled with ensuring an equitable deployment of successful broadband services nationwide, especially with fiber connectivity. “Now, everyone’s talking 5G, but how well have we done on 4G?” says Olumide Omisore, a cybersecurity expert based in Nigeria. He believes the NCC should focus rather on driving 4G access nationwide rather than investing resources in 5G, which has limited use cases in the country.
In the course of an eventual rollout, it’s unlikely that 5G will displace 4G in the country anytime soon. But with the likes of South Africa and Kenya setting the pace, and private operators eagerly spearheading experiments in Nigeria, Gabon, Lesotho, Egypt and other African countries, the path ahead has become more clear.