Kathy Gibson is at Mobile World Congress 2019 in Barcelona – South Africa, along with Kenya, Namibia and Mauritius, will have commercially-available 5G services up and running by 2022.

This is according to forecasts by Ovum which cautions, however, that initial 5G uptake on the continent will be modest, with only 5,9-million mobile 5G connections on the continent at end-2023.

Instead, continued increases in 3G and 4G subscription numbers will power the growth in mobile broadband in Africa over the next few years. The number of mobile 3G connections on the continent will rise from 456,6-million at end-2018 to 697,6-million at end-2023, while the number of mobile 4G connections in Africa will increase fivefold from 50,5-million at end-2018 to 271,6-million at end-2023.

By the end of 2023, mobile broadband connections – based on 3G and more advanced technologies – will represent 73,3% of the total 1,33-billion mobile connections on the continent.

The first use case for 5G in Africa will be for fixed-wireless broadband, followed by enhanced mobile broadband after 5G-capable smartphones become available.

As 5G technology advances, its capabilities will expand to include massive machine-type communications and ultra-reliable low latency communications, which could enable new 5G services in Africa for automation and remote monitoring and management in sectors such as agriculture, health, extractive industries, and smart cities.

However, despite advances, Africa is still behind much of the rest of the world in terms of connectivity. Ovum data shows at the end of June 2018, 43,5% of mobile subscriptions on the continent were based on mobile broadband connections. That is considerably below the global average of 70,7%.
In fact, Daryl Schoolar, practice leader: next-generation networks at Ovum, believes there are really only two use cases for 5G at this point.

They are enhanced mobile broadband, adding more capacity to the mobile network; what Schoolar describes as almost like a cellular version of the old WiFi hotspot. This is useful for places where there are high volumes of people, such as stadiums.

Fixed wireless access is the other. “There is thinking that in the Africa region it will be a good technology where people don’t have fixed broadband networks, they can deploy fixed mobile networks,” he says. “These would be countries with growing economies but no fixed infrastructure. Many are starting with LTE, you can get fixed wireless access with LTE, then migrate to 5G over time.”

Schoolar agrees that, in many African countries, 5G might be a step too far: they may not need 5G since 4G is more affordable and may be a better place to start.

“You could deploy a 4G network with fixed wireless access and migrate those as you go along.”

Despite the massive hype around 5G – at Mobile World Congress 2019 it’s hard to see anything else – very little in terms of 5G has actually been shipped, Schoolar points out.

“In the US, most of the rollouts will be small cells for enhanced mobile broadband and fixed wireless access,” he says. “Other markets, like South Korea and Japan, are focusing more on mobile. China has taken the lead in thought leadership when it comes to 5G and its use in industrial applications. In Europe, take-up is still lagging, but will most likely be for enhanced mobile broadband.”

The real take up of 5G is likely to happen between 2019 and 2022, Schoolar adds. But Ovum research indicates that investments in 5G base stations won’t overtake 4G until 2023.

“The spectrum is an issue,” he points out. “It can be really hard to get hold of spectrum; and we have to do better in spectrum sharing in the low bands.”

By 2023, it is expected that one-quarter of the world’s base stations will be 5G, and most of those will be in the US and China.