4G remains the dominant technology in Africa, but 5G is set to gain momentum

17th November 2022 By: Natasha Odendaal - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

As the adoption of fifth-generation (5G) technology accelerates at record pace worldwide, fourth-generation (4G) technology will remain dominant across Africa for the foreseeable future.

The decade of the 2020s will be characterised by the deployment of 5G; however, 4G adoption across Africa is still growing and with significant unused 4G capacity, the focus for operators in Africa in the near term will be on increasing 4G uptake, says GSMA sub-Saharan Africa public policy director Kamal Tamawa.

While 4G was already the dominant technology in many regions globally when 5G emerged, contrastingly, across Africa, “the 5G era” came at a time when legacy networks still accounted for the majority of mobile connections, with 4G still in its infancy.

Despite a sizeable market opportunity of a total population of more than 1.3-billion people and a network reach of 76%, 4G accounts for just 25% of connections on the continent, compared with 60% globally, amid device affordability and digital literacy challenges, as well as a lack of sufficient digital content to stimulate demand.

Discussing the results from the GSMA report, ‘5G in Africa: realising the potential’, Tamawa says 4G still has a lot of room to grow in the region, with current scenarios indicating that 5G mass-market readiness is some way off.

This is as 5G adoption rates grow rapidly over the next few years in many markets, with GSMA Intelligence forecasting that 5G connections will pass the two-billion mark by the end of 2025.

By September 2022, there were 218 commercial 5G networks in 83 countries, he told delegates during his presentation at the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa’s second South African 5G Forum Meeting, held from November 16 to 17, in Midrand.

“5G is now live in every region, making it a truly global technology,” he says, noting that, by 2030, total 5G connections will reach about 5.3-billion, accounting for more than half of the total number of mobile connections.

At least 60% of the world’s population will be covered by 5G networks.

The decade from 2020 to 2030 will be pivotal for the connectivity landscape in Africa as 4G hits the mass market and 5G rollout and adoption gather pace, with indications that, by the end of this decade, 4G and 5G will account for nearly two-thirds of total mobile connections in Africa.

According to GSMA, there will be a “flurry of activities” over the next three years in the 5G market as more operators in the region launch commercial 5G services.

“All stakeholders in the 5G Africa Survey expect commercial 5G services to be available in their market by 2030, with the majority predicting this to be within the 2023 to 2025 time frame,” the report indicates.

In 2019, data-only network provider Rain started offering commercial fixed-wireless access (FWA) services in South Africa, while Vodacom and MTN launched the first major 5G networks in 2020, offering 5G mobile and FWA services in South Africa and formally kicking off the 5G era in Africa.

Since then, 5G activities have gained momentum, with several more commercial and precommercial launches.

Currently, there are commercial 5G networks in more than 10 countries across the region and many more countries expecting commercial 5G to be available in their markets by 2025.

By the end of this decade, there will be more than 340-million 5G connections in Africa, equivalent to a fifth of total mobile connections.

While it is still early stages for network deployment and commercialisation, the case for 5G in Africa is strong and could, by 2030, contribute about $26-billion to the continent’s economy, with the retail, manufacturing and agriculture sectors likely to experience the most impact..

With this increased performance, higher connection speeds, greater capacity and lower latency, 5G networks can enable new use cases and applications that will positively impact many industry sectors.

According to GSMA, in addition to the measurable socioeconomic impact of 5G technology and services, further benefits are expected, such as improved access to healthcare and education, increased public security and response times, safer driving conditions and reduced pollution.

“Africa’s retail, financial services, agriculture, extractive and manufacturing industries present clear opportunities for 5G to enable digital transformation, which will avert the risk of exacerbating the digital divide with the rest of the world. Further, Africa’s vibrant technology startup ecosystem is well placed to leverage the capabilities of 5G to develop innovative solutions to address local challenges,” the report points out.