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5G to become ‘fastest-growing’ subscription type in SSAfrica

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 04 Dec 2023
The latest Ericsson Mobility Report shows global 5G mobile subscriptions will reach 1.6 billion by year-end.
The latest Ericsson Mobility Report shows global 5G mobile subscriptions will reach 1.6 billion by year-end.

While 5G subscriptions are still in the infancy stage in Sub-Saharan Africa, they will represent 16% of all mobile subscriptions in the region by 2029.

This is equivalent to 180 million 5G mobile subscriptions by 2029, reveals the latest edition of the Ericsson Mobility Report.

Released bi-annually, the report highlights key growth forecasts across the wireless industry, from 5G mobile subscriptions, fixed wireless access offerings, mobile data traffic, as well as forecasts towards 2029.

It predicts 5G mobile subscriptions will reach 1.6 billion by the end of 2023, and exceed 5.3 billion in 2029.Globally, 5G population coverage is set to reach around 85% at the end of 2029.

This, as 5G subscription uptake rises in every region, including Sub-Saharan Africa.

For Sub-Saharan Africa, subscriptions for the fifth-generation technology are anticipated to become the fastest-growing subscription type between 2023 and 2029, at 60% annually.

“Service providers will need to secure additional spectrum capacity or densify coverage in urban areas to preserve user experience, as these congested areas are increasingly reaching maximum capacity.”

Mobile subscriptions by region and technology (percent).
Mobile subscriptions by region and technology (percent).

According to the Ericsson report, the Sub-Saharan Africa telecoms sector remains resilient, even though the region is facing funding challenges and high inflation.

Connectivity has become a basic need for voice and data communications, as well as for enabling services such as banking, which have traditionally had low penetration, it notes.

“By 2029, 4G subscriptions will account for 49% of the total, as access to lower-priced smartphones and data services increases across the region.

“2G subscriptions will maintain a significant share of total subscriptions at 27%. This is mainly due to the region’s largely rural population, for whom broadband coverage is limited and smartphone affordability is a challenge.

“Service providers in Sub-Saharan Africa are also exploring additional offerings on mobile platforms, such as health, education and e-commerce. As the region with the highest overall subscription growth (3%), Sub-Saharan Africa is forecast to have 1.1 billion subscriptions in 2029, out of which 760 million (67%) will be smartphone subscriptions.”

Spectrum value-add

With a projection of 180 million 5G mobile subscriptions by 2029, the Ericsson report highlights this will mainly be propelled by strategic spectrum deployment.

In South Africa, telecoms regulator ICASA is preparing to conduct its next spectrum auction as early as next year,after last year’s “historic” auction.

The licensing process is availing spectrum resources on the following identified International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) spectrum bands: IMT750, IMT800, IMT1500, IMT2300, IMT3300 and IMT3500.

South African mobile network operators MTN, Telkom and Vodacom, for example, have begun rolling out 5G services in the country, albeit still mostly concentrated in the big cities.

Mobile data-only network operator Rain was the first telco to activate a commercial 5G network in September 2019.

The Ericsson report indicates that forward-looking 5G investments in the region are supported by spectrum releases in low- and mid-bands.

“The bulk of mobile subscribers will remain on 4G networks for several years, and it will be some time before subscribers who have migrated to 5G reach a more considerable proportion.

“Many African governments and service providers have nonetheless made measurable progress over the past year, when it comes to releasing the relevant spectrum resources for launching 5G and activating them on compatible network equipment.

“More than a dozen countries – which, with the exception of Nigeria, are mostly in Eastern and Southern Africa – now have 5G services available.”

Based on the report, urban areas are increasingly reaching maximum capacity, given the site density and available spectrum, leading to service disruption.

To maintain and improve user experience, African service providers could either secure additional spectrum or further densify network coverage, it states.

“Many governments, including Kenya and Tanzania, have allowed service providers to reuse their existing spectrum assets, thereby enabling frequency refarming in line with technology neutrality principles. Most also gave service providers access to additional frequencies, especially in the mid-band, in sizable amounts, to allow 5G to fully deliver on its promises of higher download speeds.

“As these frequencies have a limited reach, releasing some low-band frequencies alongside them offers a strategic combination of 5G resources to simultaneously expand capacity and extend coverage.

“Only a few countries have released frequencies higher than 6GHz, which are needed for ultra-high performance 5G services. This includes around 80GHz in the E-Band for high-capacity microwave links to connect towers, which is especially effective in suburban settings where fibre may not yet be available.” 

Sub-Saharan Africa region mobile data traffic (EB per month).
Sub-Saharan Africa region mobile data traffic (EB per month).