Is Nigeria ready to join Kenya and South Africa in the 5G era?

By Ruth Olurounbi
Posted on Thursday, 30 December 2021 11:58

Chile 5G Network
Sebastian Vasquez, a MTB downhill world tri-champion, demonstrates how he looks through goggles that are connected to a 5G network that is live-streaming video back to him of what he aims is site at, before riding his bike wearing the goggles during the inauguration event of the 5G network in Santiago, Chile, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

With 43% of its population living below the poverty line and an underdeveloped fixed broadband infrastructure, will Nigeria be able to implement the 5G network?

The adoption of the 5G network in Nigeria is pegged on its huge population, half of whom are poor. As of March 2021, there were at least 78.61 million 3G/4G mobile broadband subscriptions in Nigeria, according to Statista. This is a decrease when compared to figures from the previous month, but an increase from the 76 million subscribers during the same period in 2020, the data agency states on its website.

The World Bank’s digital economy diagnostic on Nigeria shows that while the “country has made several positive developments in the digital space, including high-speed Internet via five underwater international links”, it “continues to face significant challenges” that have hindered its ability to “reap the full benefits of the digital economy.”

“One leading barrier is Nigeria’s underdeveloped fixed broadband infrastructure, which is attributable to high federal and state taxes and an insufficient wholesale regulatory regime. This weak infrastructure base creates a ripple effect across the economy, contributing to low levels of financial inclusion, and persistent geographic and gender gaps in access to and use of digital technologies,” the World Bank says.

5G to roll out in 2022

Following a successful auction of the 3.5GHz spectrum auction, which will herald the launch of 5G network that earned the Nigerian government more than $500m in revenue, Nigeria will more than likely roll out the commercialisation of the 5G spectrum by the fourth quarter of next year, according to a government policy document seen by The Africa Report.

Nigeria will therefore join Kenya and South Africa as the only three countries to have deployed commercial 5G services on the continent. Nigeria is depending on this superfast mobile technology to drive growth in an economy that’s struggling to rebound from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which pushed it into its worst recession in 25 years.

The government plans to conclude the 5G spectrum assignment by the first quarter of 2022, according to its policy document, which states that Africa’s biggest economy is following a “phased approach” as its deployment plan. The three-thronged strategy includes a Non-Stand Alone (NSA) approach for the early stage, a hybrid approach for the mid-term, and a Stand-Alone approach for the long term.

An NSA approach “will involve the deployment of 5G equipment on some existing sites, supported by densified networks of small cells”, according to the document, while “the mid-term stage (2021 – 2025) will involve a hybrid approach with new-build 5G sites added to the small cell networks”. Depending on demand and ROI, this hybrid scenario may be seen by some as a long-term solution. “The long-term stage (post-2025) should see Stand Alone networks deployed and will require the largest infrastructure investment,” the document says.

Recent approval of 5G

In October, the West African country announced that it had approved deployment of the 5G network. The roll-out of the network is to be carried out in phases, beginning with major cities in the country where there is a need for high-quality broadband, and Nigeria expects to have 5G coverage of major urban areas by 2025, according to Isa Pantami, Nigeria’s communications minister.

The 5G is a significant improvement from 4G in terms of capabilities and applications, according to Sunday Folayan, co-founder at SKANNET and former president of the Nigeria Internet Registration Association. “4G has demonstrated significant improvements over 3G in terms of clearer video and audio that has made remote teaching and learning possible, especially with the advent of the pandemic. 5G promises even better applications such as telemedicine, more accurate navigation, and artificial intelligence-driven applications,” he tells The Africa Report.

To ensure that the country is digitally enabled by 2030, investing in infrastructure to bridge the digital divide and creating an enabling regulatory environment for the digital economy to thrive is of paramount importance.

During a speech at the 3.5GHz action, Adeolu Akande -chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) board – said he sees 5G network driving key industries such as “manufacturing, utilities, professional and financial services”.

The big upset

Mafab Communications Limited, a little-known telecommunication company, will join MTN Communications Nigeria Limited to provide 5G network coverage to Nigerians. The 18-month old company outbid Airtel Nigeria to become the second provisional licence winner after MTN Nigeria won the bid price for the auction at $273.6m for each lot of 100 MHz TDD.

Shina Badaru – who has been a stakeholder in the Nigerian ICT space for nearly a quarter of a century and founder of Technology Times – says “by launching straight into the 5G era, Mafab [Communications Nigeria Limited] will be jumping over several dated technologies to head straight into an era of hyper-fast technology for voice, data and video services and more like IoT, AI and more”.

“One of the timeless lessons that a new or late entrant brings to any industry is its capacity to have watched and studied the existing players, particularly in telecoms, and develop a strategic plan to leverage that knowledge in filling in the missing gaps to their customers when they launch service,” he says. The communications company, chaired by Kano-born billionaire Musbahu Bashir, says it will be launching a greenfield mobile network operator next year to roll out the 5G network.

“The auction could not have come at a better time as we count down the last few hours to [the] close of the MTN’s Group ongoing offer for sale of shares in MTN Nigeria,” Uto Ukpanah, company secretary to MTN said in a statement last week.

Though Nigeria became the first West African nation to approve the deployment of a 5G network, analysts see the move as just one step in the long road to deployment and adoption of the technology in a country with more than 200 million people, half of whom live in extreme poverty.

From the consumer perspective, the cost of a 5G mobile device could become more expensive than what an average Nigerian can afford, with the country’s minimum wage of N30,000 ($72). A mobility report by Ericsson puts mobile phone connections on 3G in sub-Saharan Africa at 43%, with only 15% on 4G and less than 1% on 5G, while the remaining ones are on 2G.

The West African country needs to focus on accelerating improvements in five fundamental pillars of the digital economy: digital infrastructure, platforms, financial services, entrepreneurship, and skills.

Nigeria, which ranked 131st worldwide with a general score of 56.9 according to the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business’ report, said it wants to improve population coverage for 4G/45 technology by at least two operators by as much as 90% and broadband penetration of 70% in 2025; with access to broadband at a price of not more than N390 for 1GB of data by the same timeframe. The government’s broadband plan also includes an attempt to facilitate the local assembly of a smartphone, with a target price of N18,000 by 2023 and N9,000 by 2025.

Abuja says it will provide “an enabling environment” for 5G deployment on the continent’s biggest economy and most populous nation, but mobile network operators “will determine their own deployment strategies subject to alignment to the approved policies and other regulatory instruments in force”, according to a policy document by the government.

To realise the full benefits of the digital economy, the West African country needs to focus on “accelerating improvements in five fundamental pillars of the digital economy: digital infrastructure, platforms, financial services, entrepreneurship, and skills”, says Shubham Chaudhuri, Nigeria’s country director for the World Bank.

“To ensure that the country is digitally enabled by 2030, investing in infrastructure to bridge the digital divide and creating an enabling regulatory environment for the digital economy to thrive is of paramount importance,” he tells The Africa Report.

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