5G: a promising deployment in Africa, but…

#Morocco : 5G is developing tentatively in Africa, where its ancestors 2G, 3G and 4G still coexist. Although the benefits of 5G are numerous, some countries and operators believe that the continent is not equipped to take full advantage of it and prefer to wait.

While China is already focusing on 6G, 2G and 3G technologies are still dominant in Africa at a time when many operators are beginning to migrate their subscribers to 4G or 4G+ in least developed countries. This means that the digital divide between the countries that are fully deploying 5G technology (China, the United States and South Korea) and the countries of Africa, which are not the only continent lagging behind in 5G adoption, is is enormous.

According to many studies, it would take an average of 2027 for the majority of countries to be connected to 5G. But this technology is already developing rapidly worldwide. According to the GSMA, by the end of 2021, 176 mobile operators in 70 markets worldwide had already launched commercial 5G services. Among those markets are a handful of Africans, starting with South Africa, the first country to roll out 5G on a continental scale in August 2018. Then, in June 2020, Madagascar was equipped with this technology, well ahead of the more developed countries, even if its deployment remains limited to a few cities, including the capital Antananarivo and Tamatave (port city). With 5G, Madagascar is positioning itself to be attractive and to attract investment in new business areas such as call centers, BPOs, etc., thus competing with countries like Mauritius that have a one-stop shop for call center activities, essentially Malagasy work.

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Then the list gradually grew and now included Kenya, Seychelles, Togo, Zimbabwe and Nigeria. In other countries such as Morocco, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal, among others, we are actively preparing for the deployment of this technology, believing that 4G and 4G+ are currently sufficient to meet the needs of subscribers. 5G is also in the pilot phase in many other countries (Mali, Ethiopia, Mauritius, etc.). In short, 5G is still in its infancy in Africa. Its commercial use in certain countries should also be qualified as it is very often limited to the scope of certain major cities and/or a few business districts.

Still, everything seems to indicate that the deployment of this technology in Africa should accelerate in the coming years with the deployment of data centers and undersea cables being laid on the ocean floor by telecom operators and the giants of the internet. In addition, African countries are increasingly committed to their digital transformation, and broadband coverage of their territory has become a fundamental development issue. And according to forecasts by Chinese giant Huawei, “African countries will start licensing 5G spectrum from 2022, 2023 and 2024”.

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It is true that 5G has become a priority for some countries on the continent because it allows them to make a technological leap and offers relatively many advantages. First, with 5G, African countries are embracing broadband without having to build heavy and costly wired infrastructure. In addition, 5G is ten times faster than 4G overall. To illustrate, if it takes more than 3 minutes to download an HD movie (around 4GB) and 15 seconds for an MP3 album, it only takes 10 seconds to download the same HD movie and 3 seconds for the album. Likewise, latency, which is 10ms on 4G, is now just 1ms on 5G. In addition, the connection with 5G is more stable and there are fewer interruptions and blockages. As a result, the quality of video calls is much better thanks to the use of the 3.5GHz frequency band, which is much less congested and allows for higher speeds.

In addition to the speed of the connection, 5G allows different uses thanks to smartphones and mobile applications that integrate augmented reality. Thus, ultra-fast speeds enable a multiplication of simulation applications. Likewise, 5G technology will make it possible to use virtual reality on the go.

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In addition, by improving data transmission speeds, 5G will contribute to the boom of connected objects (heater, refrigerator, coffee maker, etc.) and the development of new smart objects. In addition, at the industrial level, 5G is expected to modernize activities with remote control of production lines and significantly increase industrial productivity. This technology will also help revolutionize the healthcare sector, thanks to telemedicine, which will experience a real revolution, and real-time monitoring of patients hospitalized at home, as well as transport, with the advent of autonomous vehicles and sensors for better management Road transport, the development of connected agriculture (connected tractor that can be controlled remotely, analysis of production and potential risks, etc.).

In short, if the benefits of 5G for African countries are undeniable, apart from high cellular speeds, the technologies and markets of many African countries are not yet mature enough to take full advantage of this technology on an industrial level.

In addition, the problem of access to electricity (average electrification rate of 55%), the knowledge that 5G antennas consume 3.5 times more energy than previous generation antennas, and the need for efficient data storage infrastructures (data centers) are among the obstacles to development of 5G in Africa. In addition, customers must have the latest generation of devices that are compatible with 5G and are still expensive. All of these are obstacles to the rapid and profitable deployment of technology in Africa.

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As a result, 5G remains very expensive for some countries and, above all, does not necessarily meet the needs of the vast majority. This is the case in Kenya, where Safaricom has postponed its 5G projects. The same applies to orange in West Africa. In addition to the cost of equipment, operators also believe that 5G subscriptions will inevitably be more expensive, and therefore the number of customers will be small.

However, 5G appeals to professionals in many sectors (industry, banking, etc.). In countries like Morocco, South Africa and Egypt, certain industries (aerospace, automotive, healthcare, etc.) that are among the most developed on the continent could need 5G. In order not to miss out on the digital transformation, telecom operators are therefore quickly switching to 5G.

Giants like Vodacom, Orange, MTN, Airtel and even Moov are leading this movement. And given the significant costs and specific infrastructures required for the development of 5G, these operators are joining forces and working with international providers against the background of the rivalry between Western (Ericsson, Nokia, etc.) and Chinese (Huawei and ZTE in particular) together. Companies that were one step ahead. It must be said that beyond the information and even economic war between the West and China, the control of 5G offers an undeniable advantage in the sense that it allows the control of data, even of a sensitive nature, especially in one of the Ascension the internet of things and artificial intelligence.

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To counter China’s pledged dominance of 5G in Africa, European equipment maker Ericsson signed an agreement with the African Telecommunications Union (ATU) in June 2020, aimed at rolling out broadband on the continent, positioning itself as a privileged partner of more than 25 countries when using 5G. A year later, Chinese giant Huawei, world leader in 5G, responded by also signing a partnership agreement with UAT. Huawei has pilot projects in many countries including Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal and Mali. And the Chinese giant is sure to outperform its western rivals, as it already covers around 70% of the continent’s 4G network.

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