How infrastructural deficit may affect 5G rollout

Mafab and MTN have launched 5G in Nigeria. Mafab’s recent 5G launch raised many questions concerning the rollout of this new technology in the country. Temitayo Jaiyeola writes about these questions in this piece

On Thursday, January 26, 2023, Mafab Communications launched its 5G network in Lagos, 48 hours after launching in Abuja. While it might have been late to the party, Mafab joined MTN Nigeria to become one of the two telecommunication firms to launch 5G in the country.

Technology is in a constant state of evolution, and fifth-generation technology is one of the latest products of this evolution. As with every technology, countries have begun to adopt 5G. Nigeria and a handful of African countries are spearheading Africa’s 5G questions, but there are questions, yet unanswered, about the country and by extension the continent’s readiness for 5G.

Mobile networks started with 1G, which was characterised by poor coverage and low sound quality. This evolved to 2G, which allowed people to send text messages, picture messages, and multimedia messages. Soon 3G came, and a new door of possibility opened to mobile phone users. 3G brought a certain stability to mobile Internet coverage, which allowed blackberry devices to flourish in the early 2000s.

The launch of 4G network around 2009 ushered in streaming without buffering, faster mobile Internet speed, and the stability of video call conferencing. The world was still getting used to 4G when whisperings about the development, speed, and possibility of 5G started. 5G is about 100 times faster than 4G and allows for the adoption of smart technologies.

At first, it was all smoke, nothing substantial. When 5G spectrum auctions began, it became hard to ignore its reality.

Soon, the United States and China began the race for 5G, with the US crippling Huawei in the process. The rest of the world began to roll out this new technology, albeit with different forms of pushback. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic did not help 5G as conspiracy theorists carried false news that 5G was responsible for the spread of the virus.

In places like the UK, 5G masts were destroyed and people panicked. But 5G has since weathered initial scepticism and is now gaining ground.

As of the end of September 2022, 214 mobile operators in 81 global markets had launched commercial 5G services, with the network accounting for nearly half of mobile connections in South Korea, and about a third in the US, according to GSMA.

By the end of 2022, 5G subscriptions had hit one billion, according to Ericsson.

Nigeria has come a long way since the launch of GSM in 2001. The mobile industry has grown from a few thousand to 222 million as of the end of 2022. Mobile Internet has grown tremendously to dominate the Internet populace with 154.28 million subscriptions.

3G and 4G continue to be the dominant network in Nigeria. As of December 2021, there were 43.51 million 4G connections and 34.53 million 3G connections in Nigeria.

Nigeria is a country that aligns with global technology trends and in November of 2021, the Nigerian Communications Commission announced plans for the auction of 5G licences after engagements with stakeholders earlier in the year, and a trial test in 2019.

On the auction day, Mafab Communications Ltd and MTN Nigeria Plc, emerged as the two successful winners of the 5G spectrum, parting with $273.6m each. By the end of 2022, Airtel joined the 5G party.

Nigeria also launched a national 5G policy to guide the deployment of the network. In the policy, the President, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (retd), said, “The national policy includes a deployment plan to ensure that major cities across the country benefit from 5G technologies. It also seeks to make 5G a major driver of our economy, a catalyst for smart cities in the country and a platform for the creation of jobs that support our digital economy.”

According to the minister of communications and digital economy, Isa Pantami, 5G has the potential to significantly enhance user’s experience with mobile networks and real-time communications.

Commenting on the policy, he stated, “The policy is designed to achieve the following, amongst others: to ensure effective deployment of 5G to cover major urban areas by 2025; to ensure security of the 5G ecosystem and the protection of data.”

Speaking on the justification for 5G, the policy read in parts, “While the contributions and achievements of 3G and 4G technologies have been remarkable, the current and continuous increase in the development of new technologies and devices with the accompanying new service requirements creates a need for the development of technologies that can meet these requirements.”

It further explained that mobile data traffic in Nigeria was on the rise, and there was a need for an effective and cost-efficient network expansion to support this growth. The policy placed a lot of expectations on 5G but was honest enough to admit certain limitations.

According to it, the plan for 5G was hampered by a myriad of policy and regulatory challenges such as spectrum allocation, spectrum assignment, infrastructure challenges, right-of-way issues, network security, data privacy, health, safety, and more.

Since the 2021 auction, MTN and Mafab have rolled out 5G in the country. MTN commercially launched 5G in Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Ibadan, Kano, Owerri, and Maiduguri in September 2022. Mafab recently announced its 5G launch in Lagos, Abuja, and four other Nigerian cities.

The new telecom firm has yet to launch commercially, and its 5G launch also raised many  questions that are begging for answers. But by the NCC’s standard and timeline, it has launched.

5G services now live in certain cities of Nigeria and should account for four per cent of total connections in 2025, according to GSMA.

The continued expansion of 4G and its adoption is expected to continue to outpace 5G. According to a report by Economist Intelligence, 5G’s benefit will not be reaped in the short term in Africa.

It said, “As developed economies advance from 5G launch to uptake, countries in Africa are prioritising legacy networks over the latest cellular standard. Although a few countries have turned on commercial 5G networks in 2022, about two-thirds of the 53 African countries surveyed for this report are not expected to do so until 2025 at the earliest.”

Large infrastructural challenges, low broadband penetration, cost of data, and unaffordability of smartphones are some of the challenges that are set to affect 5G’s adoption in the country.

According to the Federal Government, there were 301 local governments in the country without Internet access. The World Bank recently stated that the country needs about 120,000 to 167,000 kilometres of fibre infrastructure, in addition to its existing 55,000 km, at a cost of $3.4bn.

A report by Alliance for Affordable Internet in 2022 revealed that only about 44 per cent of Nigerians had access to smartphones.

In its 2022 Mobile Economy report for sub-Saharan Africa, GSMA said, “The availability of 5G devices – and at affordable prices – will be crucial to 5G adoption in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is especially true given that the sluggish uptake of 4G across the region is, in large part, attributable to the high cost of devices relative to average income levels.

“That said, smartphone shipment data for the region suggests growing demand for 5G-enabled devices.”

According to a source in the industry, the country might not be ready for 5G because of the many challenges surrounding network rollout in the nation. The source added that 5G might also increase fibre penetration in the nation when it is rolled out en-mass.

The source said, “The answer is no. 5G does not significantly have a faster speed. 5G is most useful when you have a network of connected devices.

“For 5G, fibre connectivity does help a lot. A lot of places that enjoy 5G have fibre connections to the base tower. There is a lot of infrastructure needed to fully enjoy 5G. It is a step in the right direction. It will increase fibre penetration significantly.

“We are not going to really see the effect of 5G now. There is fibre deficiency, and 5G was designed to optimise a network of multiple devices. 5G is a good use case for the internet of things where for example you have your laptops, home automation system, and more all on the network, and speak to each other, it enables that.”

However, the President of the National Association of Telecoms Subscribers, Adeolu Ogunbanjo, affirmed that Nigeria was ready for 5G adoption despite the issues bedevilling the industry.

He recalled how many believed that the country wasn’t ready for GSM in 2001 and even predicted low adoption.

He said, “Yes, the time is now. If we don’t start now, we will not definitely improve. Let us start, then we move on. Whatever challenges we have, we will correct them, and we move on rather than wait until everything is ready.

“Yes, everything is not ready yet, but a percentage of infrastructure is there.So, why don’t we start and learn the ropes?

“5G improves the quality of service, people will enjoy telephony, and Internet services will get better.

“Launching 5G despite the issue of 4G adoption actually gives the subscriber choice. Adoption will grow faster than what has been predicted. When MTN and Airtel started GSM, the forecast for the first month was about 5,000 phones. In that month, they did 35,000 phones. Adoption will grow quickly.”

The Chief Operating Officer, Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria, Ajibola Olude, added, “We are ready for 5G. From all indications, we are ready for 5G. Regarding device shortages, MTN for instance has a device financing scheme for 5G.

“The adoption of 5G would be very quick here given its attendant benefits. 5G is coming with a lot of possibilities, and the rate of adoption of 5G will be so quick. Although, it will be expensive. When you consider it vis-à-vis what you stand to benefit from, the uptake will be very quick. 5G will help us address a lot of things.

“It will be useful for security, education, the health sector, and virtually all sectors of the economy. 5G will impact our economy greatly.”

With the  launch of 5G in the country, the jury is out on how successful its adoption will be. People want to communicate in different forms, and the telecom industry enables that. This has allowed telecoms to thrive in Nigeria despite its many challenges and naysayers. 5G, according to the experts, is a technology that will allow people to communicate faster.

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