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Sub-Saharan Africa’s 5G subscriptions to top 70m by 2026

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 07 Jul 2021

The speed of 5G uptake is faster than any other previous mobile technology, outpacing predecessors such as 4G, says Todd Ashton, VP and head of Ericsson South and East Africa.

Ashton was speaking at a media webinar organised by Ericsson, to unpack some of the findings from the 2021 Ericsson Mobility Report. Released bi-annually, the report tracks developments within the industry for long-term planning for industry players.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, markets across the globe continue to switch on 5G, with more than 160 service providers across the globe having launched 5G, according to the mobility report.

Says Ashton: “As fast as 4G take-up was during its time, 5G adoption is going faster. It is going faster for a number of reasons; namely, earlier engagement with 5G compared to 4G in specific countries as well as the timely availability of devices.”

Ericsson says 5G is set to penetrate every region, including Sub-Saharan Africa, by 2026. It also forecasts there will be 3.5 billion 5G mobile subscriptions by that time.

While no 5G mobile subscriptions were recorded for the region at the end of last year and no significant growth is expected for 2021, the report shows that discernible volumes of 5G subscriptions are expected from 2022.

It indicates the region is likely to have around 70 million 5G subscriptions by the end of 2026.

Based on the report’s statistics for Sub-Saharan African markets, around 15% of mobile subscriptions were for 4G at the end of 2020 and this will increase to 28% over the next five years.

According to Ashton, even though 4G is still the most important opportunity and technology for the African continent, 5G is growing fast and is coming to the continent as well. “I am convinced that 5G will come to Africa faster than we think because we’ve seen this trend around the world.”

The speed of 5G uptake will really drive economies of scale, and most importantly, the device prices, which is critical for the 5G adoption in Africa, he notes. “The device prices have come down very fast and that has led to the fact that we are seeing 5G rollout going faster.

“In 2020, you can see that 15% of the population were using 4G and 43% still on 3G. In my view, the single biggest opportunity is to make 4G rollout bigger. You need to build out that 4G layer as that is the baseline for 5G. Without a good 4G layer, 5G is not going to be very helpful.

“As 5G services come, you’ll still see a heavy reliance on 4G and 3G.”

As to whether continued use of 2G and 3G will hamper the region’s 5G uptake, Ashton explains there will be lots of refarming of the technologies by the mobile operators.

“2G devices are always going to be quite important for merchants for things like mobile money. I see 2G remaining an important technology in Africa and many parts of the world going forward.

“We see a trend of taking the 3G spectrum and allocating it to 4G. 4G is the critical layer to get into place for supporting 5G rollouts. If the refarming – transferring 3G spectrum for 4G services – doesn’t happen, it could potentially slow down 5G adoption. We are seeing the refarming happening though.”

Even though 5G rollout in Sub-Saharan Africa has been slow, it has not deterred some mobile operators in the region from switching on the next-generation mobile technology.

In SA, for example, telcos have used temporary spectrum that ICASA released in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic to launch 5G networks.

In May last year, Vodacom switched on its 5G mobile network in three cities – Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town – with further deployments planned to other parts of the country.

MTN’s 5G network, also launched last year, covers areas of Johannesburg and Cape Town, as well as Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth.

In 2019, mobile data-only network operator Rain activated Africa’s first commercial 5G network.