Testing Waters: Inside Africa’s prolonged installation of 5G

Testing Waters: Inside Africa’s prolonged installation of 5G
  • Round-up of 5G in African countries
  • Rise of virtually-enabled world
  • SA 5G temporary spectrum
  • MTV vs. ICASA
  • Nigeria’s religious views
  • Kenya and Ethiopia’s mobile phones adoption
  • China’s ZTE remote coronavirus diagnosis

5G network is the successor of 4G; the fourth generation technology and it has significant characteristics – even its predecessors as in 1G, 2G, and 3G.

5G potentials?

Nikola Tesla’s dream of wireless connectivity in 1893 is simply a feature of 5G. Now, the CEO of Tesla, Elon Musk says he sees the self-driving car beyond internet connectivity.

5G is a more advanced 4G/LTE network. It means areas, where 5G is live, would experience faster downloads, real-time communications, greater capacity, and lower latency. 5G will bring 10 times to 100 times improvement over the existing 4G LTE technology.

5G would impact the world and likely enhance robotics, a lethargic situation where people would perform less. But, seamless work and a coordinated environment are what people long for – and 5G would solve many mysteries except that it is expensive and technical to operate.

In Africa, 5G is witnessing several setbacks yet, its development in several countries is worthy of note.

Some countries on the African continent have deployed a 5G network i.e. the fifth generation of cellular technology. While some are testing it, others are far from the dream to use the network.

Tanzania; Africa’s Tech hot spot?

In recent news, mobile communication technologies are deploying the network in African countries. The most recent on the continent is Vodacom Tanzania in Dar es Salaam; Tanzania’s commercial hub on September 1.

Projected to be a megacity by 2030, the country’s economy has been one to watch closely: its dependence on agriculture as the mainstay; deposits of mineral resources such as gold, diamonds, and its blue gemstones tanzanite found solely in the country; revenue realized from tourism and a developing tech ecosystem – all to its favor and potential of becoming an economic dependent country. Among other things, the country’s business environment is advantageous which now allows tech innovations and talents to cross the border to its second unifying state, Zanzibar due to the involvement of its government in its free economic zone program.

Read also: Wasoko launches Wasoko Innovation Hub in partnership with Zanzibar Government

Covid-19; MTN vs. Vodacom and Lesotho’s early 5G launch

In Nigeria, the South African multinational mobile telecommunications Company, MTN launched the 5G network on August 24. This was after MTN and Mafab Communications ltd won the bid for a permanent 5G spectrum at $273 million each in December 2021. Meanwhile, MTN had competed with Vodacom South Africa since the discourse which started in 2018 to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 which led to the first release of a temporary 5G spectrum from April 2020 till August 2021. By that time, Vodacom had already launched 5G commercial services in Lesotho two years before it began operation in South Africa.

The immediate impact of the pandemic was a universal lockdown that saw to the effectiveness of implementing a work-from-home culture. Essentially, the world was virtual. Schools, homes, and workplaces were disrupted. To optimally achieve a cyber-coordinated world, there’d be the need for stronger data connection and a better network which 4G or LTE couldn’t provide nor promise – even till now. It was such a time for an unprecedented surge in income making for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and gadget stores.

“Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in millions of people using videoconferencing for working and learning from home and other activities… Being homebound also resulted in more use of social media, video streaming, and online gaming”, a World Bank post-pandemic (2021) report highlighted. This period spurred innovations for telecoms and enabled cost-effective purchases of data to incorporate the people living in rural areas with those in highly concentrated digital-wise areas, particularly urban communities.

Rain, a South African data-only mobile operator had launched a 5G network as far back as the year Covid-19 was first discovered – but its areas of coverage were limited only to parts of Johannesburg and Tshwane, while in 2020, Vodacom launched its operations in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Pretoria. By June 2020, MTN had access to 100 sites across Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, Cape Town, and Port Elizabeth.

“Unless the government ensures 5G spectrum is released quickly, it will be the first time that South Africa is completely left behind when a new generation of wireless technology is released”, MTN warned in 2018 and began taking moves to achieve the 5G spectrum until the South African government introduced the “fight for the right to transmit 5G” – stating that it will not allow telcos with more than 45% market share (classified as tier 1) to bid for 5G spectrums. By January 2021, MTN sued the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) for excluding it from bidding on 5G spectrums in the country.

Read also: MTN Emerges Highest in Customer Satisfaction Rating, Ahead of Vodacom and Telkom

When the deadline issued for Vodacom and MTN temporary 5G spectrums lapsed on August 31, 2021; ICASA extended it by three months until November 31, 2021. Corporate Affairs Executive, MTN South Africa, Jacqui O’Sullivan alarmed that post-5G would result in “digital load shedding”. As of March, Vodacom, MTN, Rain, Telkom, Cell C, and Liquid Telecom all bid for the 5G spectrum at almost a billion dollars. ICASA placed the auction at 14.4 billion rand or $967.49 million. By June 21, MTN has already covered 555 5G sites in Gauteng and plans to reach 25% of South Africa by the end of the year.

Lesotho is still hanging on to its plans to fully launch the 5G network. In 2018, the Lesotho government allowed Vodacom a temporary spectrum that served as a sample for other countries yet to allow the adoption of 5G. It was the first African country that ran a 5G test but is now lagging due to strict policies of the Lesotho Communications Authority (LCA). Owing “government interference on the matters of licencing at the LCA, coupled with corruption by senior public servants – could have led to the delay in the launch of 5G technology in Lesotho”, said a source for the Centre for African Journalists (CAJ) News Africa.

During the heat of the covid-19 pandemic, some religiously-wired Nigerians expressed concerns about how 5G could have been the cause of the virus although, this was rebuffed by certain individuals who held that Lesotho had already begun testing its 5G network two years prior but, coronavirus didn’t occur as at then.

On April 7, 2020, the Nigerian Government through the National Orientation Agency described these claims as unfortunate. “It is very unfortunate that in this sensitive time some of our religious leaders are beginning to behave like they are uninformed”, Spokesperson for the agency, Paul Ogenyi said.

“Nigeria has witnessed deaths and many infections. So, I appeal to religious leaders to seek information if they are not sure of the facts”, Ogenyi added.

Kenya and Ethiopia’s 5G-enabled mobile phones

“If people cannot afford the smart phones, who will use the 5G internet when it’s here?”

MTN Uganda Chief Technical Information Officer, Ali Monzer explained in an interview posted on MTN’s website on June 28, 2021, about 5G installation in Uganda. While answering if Uganda’s 5G would deliver speed over its launch in 2020, he cleared that 5G hadn’t been launched in the country yet. “We didn’t launch 5G yet, but we did a Proof of Concept (POC) with our partners to test the service but in the long run. This is a key foundation for 5G because it is about fast speed and low latency. The most important aspect of latency is the transport network and with this technology we are going to achieve the lowest latency possible in Africa to transport data. This technology will allow us to run 5G which is predominantly for industrial use for example self-driving vehicles, tele-medicine and etc …” he responded.

In another article, Public Relations Officer for Airtel, David Birungi was quoted. “Why rush when we have a lot of groundwork to do? If people cannot afford the smart phones, who will use the 5G internet when it’s here?”.

This is particularly where Kenya and Ethiopia have it different from other African regions.

Speaking to Quartz Africa, the lead author of a 2019 report on 5G in sub-Saharan Africa by GSMA, Kenechi Okeleke spoke on the innovations of Safaricom, Kenya’s largest telecommunications provider, partly owned by Vodacom – and the challenges it could solve on the continent. “This move will draw a lot of attention to the potential of 5G in the region and the benefits it can bring to society”.

In 2021, Kenya became the second African country to roll out 5G, partnering with Chinese Huawei and Finnish Nokia company.

5G networks have their own mobile devices which are rather expensive and may be unaffordable to African countries that are still trying to adapt to 3G and 4G. As of 2019, only 28.2% of Africans have access to the internet which is odd compared to other continents – the second lowest being Arab states’ 51.6% — with another analysis by GSMA in 2020 that states 276 million people or 27% of the African population are connected to the internet. Hence, there may be a need to effectively utilize 4G while solving the itching problems of poverty connected to the incapability of leveraging the benefits of 5G.

Chief Executive Officer of Safaricom, Peter Ndegwa also mentioned that the high cost of 5G-compliant phones is a major impediment.

“Until handsets that can receive 5G are at a sufficient scale from an individual mobile perspective, there isn’t a big need to have lots of sites that offer 5G. 5G-enabled devices are still very expensive and that’s one of the reasons why we are focusing more on the 4G side and leaving 5G to serve the homes versus your mobile internet”, the Business daily quoted him.

Other challenges of 5G implementation in Africa

In other African countries where 5G has been installed, there are still setbacks ranging from non-inclusivity of regional governments; several testing in Egypt, Senegal, etc. to uncertainty and plans in Madagascar, and doubts over health hazards in Seychelles.

Meanwhile, In China, ZTE Corporation, a partially state-owned Chinese technology that focuses on telecommunication implemented 5G to diagnose Coronavirus in West China Hospital and Chengdu Public Health Clinic Center of Sichuan University – debunking health risk claims in some African regions.

ZTE partnered with MTN in 2020 to collectively launch 5G 2020.