There is a drastic migration to mobile broadband in Sub-Saharan Africa. The few coming years act as key tipping point as the 2G connections are becoming less important in the total connection base of the region. The first half of 2018 has seen the launch of six new 4G networks and it made the total within the region to 120. The current investment in 4G networks will help in driving the 4G connection proportion from more than 4% by the end of 2017 to around a quarter by 2025.
Despite the high launch of 4G networks in the region, 3G will be dominant network across the region in the coming few years. The connection will account for around 60% of the total connections in the region by the end of 2025. Efforts to improve network economics for 4G connection and advances in LTE has not stopped some operators from pursuing their investment in expanding 3G network coverage and launching new 3G networks. For instance, in the second half of 2017, Airtel announced a significant investment to expand its 3G network connection in the 900 MHz band into rural communities. A regulator from Ghana encouraged operators with the license to give 3G services in the 90 MHz module.
It seems there are two key factors that back the operators’ support for 3G in the region. The current popularity of feature-phones means that 3G networks are in a position to support voice services on the devices and also data services on smartphones. Different from markets like India where operators like Reliance Jio heavily invested in 4G Sub-Saharan Africa operators are taking a cautious direction in relocating to 4G. The other factor is the scarcity of mobile broadband brands in the region. Operators prefer to redesign the 900 MHz brand to give mobile broadband services over 3G compared to waiting for new spectrum auctions to develop LTE networks.
GSMA Intelligence reports stated that the first commercial 5G connections will be brought in the region by the end of 2021. The total number of 5G connections will grow to around 12 million by 2025 from 400,000 at the end of 2021. A few operators more so those in South Africa are already carrying out 5G piloting. This reflects the South African status of being one of the most technologically advanced countries in the region. It is likely to take sometime before technology time to mature and for costs to go down before getting themselves to commercial launches.
MTN announced a partnership with Ericsson and Huawei, while Vodacom signed an MOU with Nokia. Moreover, Comsol Networks announced its partnership with Samsung and Verizon to launch 5G fixed wireless piloting in South Africa. The network is likely to be used to offer fixed wireless access and enhanced broadband services in the region with the first one likely to be dominant in the first phases of the launch.
Amid its MOU with Ericsson in 2017, MTN has piloted many 5G use cases and applications in the Test Lab as it prepares for commercial services. The operator recently took what it claims to be the first 5G field piloting in Sub-Saharan Africa by the use of 5G 28GHz millimeter-wave technology of Huawei. The piloting majored on the fixed use of wireless an important opportunity for 5G in South African urban areas due to the shortage of fixed broadband connectivity. MTN together with other operators looks like they are mainly focusing on the fixed wireless opportunity. Investment to increase fibre installation as an alternative for microwave has led to significant capacity at cell sites for backhaul. The presence of 5G gives an opportunity for addressing the last mile opportunities and link households at an affordable cost. The same is driving Verizon, for instance, to focus on fixed wireless in the USA.