5G in Africa: How Huawei is paving the way

By Quentin Velluet, Special correspondent in Bangkok
Posted on Monday, 31 October 2022 11:59

Huawei's Chinese logo and 5G promotion on a shop window in Shenzhen, China. ©Alex Tai/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire/REA

From Bangkok, where it welcomed various African telecom officials, the Chinese giant is hoping to usher in a new era of mobile internet dedicated to 5G.

The location chosen was surprising and prevented some guests from coming due to a lack of visas. In the Thai capital of Bangkok, Huawei, a Chinese manufacturer of telecommunications network equipment and one of the giants in the sector, invited some sixty African partners to attend a large-scale seduction operation devoted to 5G on 24 October.

During an afternoon dedicated to this new generation of mobile internet, senior Huawei executives and some of the technology’s pioneering partners – such as the world’s largest operator, China Telecom, and the Saudi Arabian company Zain – presented various usage scenarios and commercial successes observed in China and the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula.

The ‘priority’ for 2023

The aim was to convince ministers, regulators and other leaders of the African public telecoms sector that 5G is the priority for 2023. Among the guests at this very select event: Yacouba Coulibaly, Director General of the Ivorian Agency for the Management of Radio Frequencies, Ibnou Taïmiya Sylla, Special Adviser on Digital Technologies to Senegalese President Macky Sall and one of his compatriots, representing the Senegalese regulator. João Domingos Correia, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the incumbent Cape Verdean operator CVTelecom, also made the trip, as did representatives from Guinea, Tunisia and Egypt.

We have neither finished deploying 4G in Africa nor made the network profitable

The initiative seems surprising in a context where operators on the continent are still forced to expand their 4G user base in order to achieve profitability. In sub-Saharan Africa, according to the GSMA, the world’s main telecoms lobby, this technology will account for only 16% of mobile internet connections in 2021. It is expected to approach 30% by 2025, while 3G will remain the majority with 57% of connections. At the same time, operators must also manage the dismantling of the old 2G network.

“So we have neither finished deploying 4G in Africa nor made the network profitable,” says Amadou Diop, CEO of the West African consultancy MNS Consulting. But, according to Chris Meng, vice-president of the telecoms entity for Huawei North Africa (which covers a total of 25 countries), “the development of 5G can and must be done now in parallel with the expansion of 4G”.

Autonomous industries and internet at home

Between the two generations of connectivity, the applications are indeed not the same. While 4G has boosted exchanges between users on a large scale, notably via smartphones, 5G will initially only be used by industry (autonomous ports, mines, health, etc.) and for connecting homes (fixed internet via a connection to a 5G box). These are in any case the two applications that the Chinese giant is putting forward for the moment to convince its customers.

The opening ceremony of the 5G event organised by Huawei in Bangkok on 24 October ©Quentin Velluet/JA

“3G is still doing the job in some areas, 4G is expanding and 5G will complement it in particularly congested areas, such as almost every major metropolis on the continent. In recent years, fixed wireless access has tended to complement operator-led fibre deployments,” says Adnane Ben Halima, vice president of public relations for the Mediterranean region at Huawei North Africa.

“This technology reduces the time from installation to commercialization as well as the cost and payback time,” the Tunisian executive says. “There are interesting use cases in fixed internet,” confirms an Orange Africa and Middle East executive, who wishes to target mainly residential or densely populated areas.

Still too expensive for African pockets, 5G-enabled smartphones accounted for only 7.6% of handsets shipped in Africa in the second quarter of 2022, according to specialist firm IDC. Although the segment is growing by 27% year-on-year, the current 5G-enabled base is therefore not sufficient to launch consumer offerings. “We consider that the market is commercially interesting starting from a 15% penetration of compatible terminals,” says Adnane Ben Halima.

African pioneers

Moreover, many African operators have reported back on conclusive 5G tests. In Côte d’Ivoire, for example, Orange celebrated the success of the first tests at the end of September in the presence of Christel Heydemann. The operation, which took place on ten pilot sites, concluded with a speed of 1.4 gigabits per second (Gbps) whereas 4G provides a theoretical maximum of 150 megabits per second (Mbps) at its best. Meanwhile, the main competitor, MTN, almost matched this performance by recording 1.35 Gbps a few months ago.

Some have even gone so far as to offer commercial deals. In South Africa, the internet service provider, whose infrastructure is provided by Huawei, is a pioneer in this field. Currently claiming 250,000 users and 1,100 5G sites across the country, it is one of the first three operators in the world to commercially exploit 5G.

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