Slow train coming – African 5G edges its way into view and South African consumers seem keen to buy, says new survey

25 June 2021

Top Story

5G is slowly making its way into the market as regulators gear up to license its roll-out. Some like Mauritius have been quick to put licences in place, whilst others like Nigeria are taking their time. Russell Southwood looks at the state of play and interesting evidence from a new survey on consumer interest.

According to a GSMA report in February, there were 24 operators in 18 African countries going through some process of testing and evaluating 5G. Those testing included Airtel (upgrading in Kenya), Telma (Madagascar), Gabon Telecom, Sonatel (Senegal) Vodacom and MTN (Nigeria). In October last year Vodacom announced that it was in discussions with Tanzania’s regulator TCRA about its 5G plans. Tmcel in Mozambique has just announced it will begin 5G tests. Two countries – Kenya and South Africa - have operators who are now offering a fully commercial network, although the former has only a one-year trial 5G licence.

Mauritius – which was the first to roll out 3G in Africa – has just granted 5G licences to all three of its mobile operators: Cellplus, Emtel and Mahanagar Telecom Mauritius. Its regulator ICTA held a public consultation in February and invited operators to signal how much spectrum they wanted in the 2.6GHz and 3.5GHz bands being made available. Three blocks of 100MHz each were offered in the two different frequency bands.

Mauritius chose not to go the public auction route but asked the operators to specify their timeframes for achieving specific percentages of network coverage for mainland Mauritius as well as the outer islands. Once the roll-out starts, Mauritius will be the third African country to offer 5G-enabled services.

As ever, the situation with Nigeria is much more complicated and likely to be on a much more extended timeline. Regulator NCC has chosen to review its licensing structures. It has set up a standing committee within the NCC to review the existing structure. It will look at “the wide range of technological advances, [and] convergence of technologies and services which have characterised the global telecoms space over the years,” said the regulator. Its CEO Umar Danbatta suggested that this will be a lengthy process.

Alongside this wide-ranging review, it has set up a separate Committee to look at best practices for auctioning the 5G spectrum. The regulator has already done the difficult work of reclaiming 3.5GHz spectrum from Nigcomsat so that it will have enough contiguous spectrum in this band. NCC’s CEO acknowledged that it did not have sufficient allocation so "we put in extra efforts and secured additional 160MHz in the 3.5GHz band by making huge commitment of resources to secure additional spectrum from Nigerian Communication Satellite Limited (NigComSat)," culminating in a recent Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between NCC and NigComSat. It is unlikely that the process to auction will be as speedy as the five months taken by Mauritius.

What is not yet clear is what 5G will actually do in the market. It will obviously speed up things like streaming but there will undoubtedly be premium prices to take advantage of it. It might also be a fibre-substitute for households in areas currently considered commercially marginal. Once you’ve ticked those two off, you get into the fluffy stuff about the 4th Industrial Revolution, smart cities, connected cars and new applications.

Nevertheless, the pull of faster access speeds should not be discounted. Trustonic which enables customers to manage their device lifecycle and increase smartphone affordability through secure financing, has carried out a survey of users in South Africa which shows a high level of interest in 5G.

But we need to take a step back before we get to the new, shiny stuff. According to the survey 47% of respondents change their mobile device due to loss of theft and 64% had experienced mobile theft. The percentage for the latter rises to 75% among respondents aged 25-34.

Not surprisingly, Trustonic is arguing that in this context mobile security should be a top priority. It wants to install security that will disable stolen phones, turn them into “paper weights” in the colorful phrase of Trustonic VP – EMEA Craig Fleischer. Blacklisting stolen phones has proved remarkably ineffective.

On the positive side, 56% of respondents said they planned to purchase a 5G enabled phone in the next 12 months. The key age groups most interested are 25-34 year olds and 35-44 year olds: 61% of both age groups wanted a 5G phone. Regionally, those in Limpopo are most interested (80%) followed by the Northern Cape (75%). City-wise, those in Polokwane are significantly more likely to buy a 5G phone (79%) than other regions – compare this to just 32% in Pietemaritzburg.

Whilst ICASA has delayed the spectrum auction for 5G spectrum, last year MTN announced the launch of its 5G network in the country, with the initial deployment of 100 5G sites. The network currently covers areas of Johannesburg and Cape Town, as well as Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth. MTN said it had been carrying extensive 5G trials before the launch, which was made possible due to the South African Government’s decision to award temporary spectrum for 5G.

Africa’s mobile operators need to sharpen the arguments for 5G in terms of their users and regulators need to speed up their processes to get the technology into the marketplace. The inevitable clash between vendors like Huawei and Open RAN is about to begin and the ensuing disruption could benefit users.

In Brief

Nokia has announced the global launch of its latest range of AirScale 5G products covering baseband, remote radio heads, and massive MIMO active antennas with digital beamforming. The innovative solutions are powered by the latest generation of Nokia’s ReefShark System-on-Chip (SoC) chipsets and deliver the highest capacity and network performance while enabling efficient deployments and operation. The rollout of the new products is already underway.

Kenya: iHub has announce that it is partnering with Google for Startups to lead the disbursement of the Black Founders Fund Africa. This fund will provide grants and technical support to early-stage startups in Africa to grow their companies and create meaningful impact in their communities.

The fund, which is a $3M non-dilutive (equity-free) fund, will be allocated across a pipeline of 50 investable early-stage startups in Africa. Selected companies will receive the following: Up to $100,000 in cash awards. Each startup will receive either $50,000 or $100,000. Funding varies according to each startup’s product development stage, current needs, and how much they’ve already raised; $220,000 in Google Cloud Credits and Ad Grants; and mentoring, technical and scaling assistance from the best of Google and its resources.

Mauritius: A team from the Mauritius Research and Innovation Council (MRIC), winners of the KiboCUBE programme in 2018, run by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), saw their satellite deployed by JAXA from the International Space Station (ISS). MRIC is a parastatal organisation operating under the aegis of the Ministry of Information Technology, Communication and Innovation of the Republic of Mauritius. nThe satellite MIR-SAT1 ‘Mauritius Imagery and Radiocommunications Satellite -1’ is the first satellite of Mauritius. The primary objective of the mission is to acquire technology, knowledge and skills for further space endeavours as well as capture images of Mauritius. As a Small Island Developing State, Mauritius is particularly prone to natural disaster risk and set to benefit greatly from their own satellite technology.

Angola: The Government is tendering a concession to to manage, operate and expand Angola Telecom’s national and metropolitan transport backbone network. The plan aims to attract private sector expertise, with the chosen company also expected to train staff at the state-backed telco, under a wider strategy to ‘make the public business sector more dynamic and profitable’. A presidential order approving the procedure notes that the planned private-public partnership aims to take advantage of the skills and funds of national or foreign investors. The order delegates responsibility to the telecoms minister – with the power to sub-delegate – for approval of procedures, appointment of an evaluation committee for the competitive tender, and verification of the validity of all actions carried out within the scope of the tender.

Nigeria: MTN Nigeria plans to invest 640 billion naira, approximately US$1.5 billion, over the next three years to expand broadband access across the continent’s most populous country, in line with the federal government’s 2020-2025 National Broadband Plan and in support of MTN Group’s strategy, Ambition 2025: Leading digital solutions for Africa’s progress.

The second phase of the Digital Lab Africa (DLA) call for applications is now open after a successful first phase for animation and immersive experience categories. The focus of this phase is on Video Games. The destabilising impact of the pandemic on the music and digital art sectors has been such that the inclusion of these two categories has been set to resume in 2022.

Applications for the Video Game category opened on 11 June and will close on 11 July 2021. In 2020, DLA received more than 500 applications from over 32 countries. For its fifth edition, Digital Lab Africa has switched to a fully online format. The online incubation which will take place between September 2021 and March 2022 is enabled by its partners, Plaine Images, Play in Lab, Africa Games Week, Maliyo Games and Plug in Digital. The incubation will include expert mentorship, playtest and marketing workshops, masterclasses, participation in Demo Day pitches and Industry related events.  

Ghana: MainOne (, the leading provider of connectivity, cloud and data center solutions in West Africa is set to launch the Appolonia Data Center of its subsidiary, MDXi. The new facility which is located 20 kilometers from the center of Accra, Ghana will expand MainOne’s already robust infrastructure and service profile in West Africa. It was built to cater to the increasing demand for colocation and interconnection services by multinationals and businesses seeking shared services for their ICT resources in a world-class facility.

Mozambique: Vodacom Mozambique says no agreement has been reached in its interconnect dispute with rival operator Mocambique Telecom (Tmcel). The pair held negotiations on Friday (18 June) under the mediation of the National Institute of Communications of Mozambique (INCM, also known as ARECOM). Tmcel owes Vodacom MZN640 million (USD10.3 million), and a report from The Ouagadougou Times says that it proposed paying off MZN200 million within 90 days, while also beginning to pay MZN12 million a month. Vodacom rejected this solution and demanded payment of MZN200 million within ten days, saying that it reserves the right to stop interconnecting calls to its network from Tmcel customers if an agreement on the debt is not reached within ten days.