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South Africa takes driver’s seat in Africa’s 5G race

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 22 Jun 2022

While South Africa is spearheading 5G deployments in Africa, the country’s economic hub Johannesburg has the fastest median download speed among select cities on the continent.

This is according to US-based broadband testing diagnostics company Ookla, which used its Speedtest Intelligence data to analyse mobile performance on modern chipsets during 2021 (full year) across the African continent.

Analysis based on data from Speedtest Intelligence shows mobile speeds varied widely across African countries during Q1 2022.

A flagship product of Ookla, Speedtest Intelligence offers up-to-date insights into global fixed broadband and mobile performance data based on millions of consumer-initiated tests taken every day. Ookla then aggregated speeds across countries that fall within the five African regions in 2021.

“When looking at mobile performance on modern chipsets across the nine countries of the Sub-Saharan Africa region, our results showed that median download speeds ranged between 11.11Mbps (Tanzania) and 48.76Mbps (SA). Median upload speeds were between 6.45Mbps (Tanzania) and 12.58Mbps (Botswana),” says Sylwia Kechiche, principal industry analyst for enterprise at Ookla.

Within South Africa, the firm says MTN leads the race in regards to 5G deployments.

Using Speedtest Intelligence data, Ookla compared operators’ 5G performance in Q1 2022 against data from Q1 2021.

In March 2022, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) completed a delayed 5G auction, selling spectrum across 700MHz, 800MHz, 2.6GHz and 3.5GHz bands.

Rain and Vodacom got new low-band frequency assets in the 700MHz band, while Telkom and MTN gained spectrum in 800MHz.

All bidders received spectrum in mid-bands, which is considered the sweet spot for 5G in terms of speed and availability, says Ookla.

Unsurprising speed slowdown

According to the firm, in Q1 2022, MTN’s median 5G download speed reached 213.37Mbps – decreasing by a third when compared to Q1 2021 (320.10Mbps). It explains that median upload speed suffered a nearly 40% decrease, going from 46.05Mbps to 27.32Mbps.

“When we examined the state of 5G worldwide in 2021, we concluded it’s common to see new mobile access technologies slow down as adoption scales, particularly early on in the tech cycle and as more users are logging on to existing 5G networks,” says Kechiche.

As such, she adds, the downward tendency in MTN’s performance is not surprising.

“Vodacom, on the contrary, almost doubled its median 5G download speed from 69.93Mbps to 132.11Mbps.”

Ookla notes that 5G availability, which describes the percent of users on 5G-capable devices that spend the majority of their time on 5G, continues its upward trajectory across South Africa, from just 0.9% in Q1 2021, to 5.6% in Q1 2022.

It points out that MTN had shown a stronger improvement in its 5G availability in the Q1 2021 to Q1 2022 period than its rival, growing from 1% to 9.7%.

Yesterday, MTN announced it is targeting at least 25% of the country’s population to have 5G coverage by the end of 2022.

MTN is among the mobile telephony groups that used the temporary spectrum granted to mobile operators to deploy 5G services in SA’s cities, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With over 1 000 active 5G sites across the country currently, the company said it plans to ramp up its rollout.

“We want to have 5G connectivity across almost every part of SA,” says Charles Molapisi, MTN SA CEO.

Ookla says since the award of temporary spectrum in 2020, MTN has intensified its investment to increase network coverage, improve speeds and enhance the overall customer experience. The operator has also invested in an expansion drive into rural and peri-urban areas and a major 5G rollout, reaching 15% of South Africa’s population at the end of 2021.

“MTN is also planning to extend its 5G coverage to 25% of the population by the end of 2022, and 60% by 2025,” Kechiche says.

“As part of MTN’s ‘Modernisation of Network South Africa’ project, MTN has been allocating a budget to extend network reach into rural communities, support 5G expansion, and restore vandalised infrastructure: R624 million for Eastern Cape, R749 million for Western Cape, R820 million in Limpopo and Mpumalanga.”

Vodacom’s 5G availability had grown from 1.4% in Q1 2021 to 6.4% in Q1 2022, says Ookla. It states Vodacom reported in its FY 2022 results (for the year ended March 2022) that in South Africa, capital expenditure was directed at improving capacity and resilience of the network and increasing 5G rollout.

According to the firm, as of March 2022, the operator’s 4G network covered 97.9% of the population, and it had also extended 5G sites to 624.

This investment drive is paying off, Ookla notes, pointing out that according to ICASA’s report, 5G population coverage reached 7.5% in 2021, an increase from a mere 0.7% in 2020.

“However, there is a disparity between urban and rural population coverage. 5G was present across all of the urban provinces, with KwaZulu-Natal in the lead with 20% 5G population penetration, while only three regions (Free State, Gauteng and Western Cape) reported 1-2% population coverage in rural areas.”

5G money matters

Ookla observes that having invested in spectrum and network rollout, the operators look for ways to monetise 5G.

For example, MTN has partnered with Australia’s Emerge Gaming to allow people to play cloud games on their Huawei P40 Pro phone using MTN’s 5G network.

“This is all in order to attract more consumers, especially video game enthusiasts. MTN also partnered with Huawei South Africa, Miniandante Mining and Minetec Smart Mining to transform old mining processes using 5G.”

When it comes to speeds in select African capital cities, Johannesburg was fastest with a median download speed of 65.54Mbps − nearly 35% faster than that of the next-fastest city, Cape Town, at 48.27Mbps.

Gaborone stood out for posting the third-fastest median download speed on the list at 42.29Mbps.

Meanwhile, the test shows Nairobi, Kampala, Lagos and Abuja ranked closely together in terms of median download and upload speeds, with median download speeds ranging between 27.77Mbps and 33.38Mbps, with upload speeds ranging between 8.48Mbps and 11.92Mbps.

“South Africa was the first country in the region to launch 5G, and has since been joined by a handful of countries – Seychelles, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mauritius, Madagascar and Togo,” says Kechiche.

“According to GSMA [GSM Association], there were nine commercial 5G networks in seven markets across the region by the end of May 2022. In these markets, 5G coverage remains limited to major cities. Furthermore, just over two-dozen operators are either planning, or testing 5G technology, or are already in the deployment stage. Regulators across the regions have also started to make spectrum available for 5G,” she concludes.