MTN Nigeria demoed 5G network in November 2019. The demo showcased the benefits of 5G network but failed to answer the question of Nigeria's readiness for a nationwide rollout.
The demo, which took place at MTN Nigeria regional office in Abuja, was the first 5G trial in West Africa. It followed a successful trial conducted by MTN South Africa in June 2018. The largest network provider in Africa, operating in over 15 African countries, partnered with Ericsson—a leading global ICT equipment provider—for both trials.
While the trial in South Africa operated solely on Ericsson trial antenna integrated radio units and Intel® 5G Mobile Trial Platform, the demo in Abuja used Ericsson 5G-enabled devices and the 5G spectrum set aside by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) for network providers to run trials.
With successful trials in Nigeria and South Africa, the NCC and Ericsson, as well as tech enthusiasts, are optimistic about the commercial launch of 5G network beginning this year. The Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA) has also predicted that seven African countries, including Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, will have commercial 5G services by 2025. It is expected to account for only 3% of total mobile connections on the continent (and 14% globally).
However, the CEO of MTN Group, Rob Shuter, said many countires are not ready for the fifth-generation network. Rob said: "What we are doing now is to learn from the technology and get our network ready for it but I think 3G is much more relevant in most of our markets". As at October 2019, MTN has the largest market share (36.57%) in Nigeria with more than 65 million subscribers.
Currently, South Africa and Lesotho are the only African countries where 5G network has been publicly launched.
rain—a data-only network operator in South Africa—launched 5G services to selected customers in Tshwane (formerly known as Pretoria) and Johannesburg in September 2019. rain worked with Huawei to build its 5G network infrastructure on its current 3,600 MHz spectrum. Since the launch, however, some rain customers have been experiencing poor service.
Fargo Lê'Soll Mayisela, a music producer living in Johannesburg, said: "I'm so disappointed with rain. Ever since they started with 5G, 4G customers like me no longer have connection. It's like they don't care about us and our money anymore".
In Lesotho, Vodacom—a leading telecom company in South Africa—announced the launch of 5G internet service in August 2018. This was possible because, while most African countries, including South Africa, are yet to assign 5G spectrum, the Lesothan government was quick to assign 3.5 GHz frequency to enable the launch of mid-band 5G.
But so far, only the Central Bank of Lesotho and Letsang Diamond—a mining company jointly owned by Gem Diamonds and the Lesothan government—can use the 5G network in Lesotho.
These two instances give a sneak peek into how telecom companies and internet service providers (ISPs) in Nigeria can roll out 5G to customers. First, the next-gen network could be rolled out in selected areas to selected customers. Second, low- and mid-band 5G network could be launched to enable wider coverage.
Unlike the fourth generation (4G) network, 5G gives network providers opportunity to use different airwave technologies. There is the high band (millimeter wave), which uses between 20 GHz and 100 GHz frequency; the mid-band is between 1 GHz and 10 GHz; and the low-band uses frequency below 1 GHz. While millimeter waves provide the true 5G experience with over 2 Gigabit (Gb) per second, the mid-band provides 100-300 Mb per second, and the low-band simply works and feels like a 4G network.
The 5G network MTN Nigeria demoed in Abuja and Calabar peaked at 2 Gb per second, indicating that MTN can roll out high band 5G to customers when it's ready. However, due to its high frequency, millimeter waves have short range (about 800 feet) and connect best to devices in direct line of sight. Hence, more base stations are needed to provide wide coverage.
Also, the ability to use different airwave technologies on the 5G network allows network providers to upgrade their 4G infrastructure, like rain did in South Africa, to launch 5G. But customers do not have such opportunity. Smartphones and devices with 4G capacity cannot connect to 5G network. And for people living in low- and middle-income countries, including African countries, 5G-enabled devices are too expensive.
According to Rob, 5G is a technology that would be used for very specific cases. He told reuters: "It would not be a technology for everybody because most people don't need it, your phone works just fine on 3G".
In its report, titled, "Spotlight on Nigeria: Delivering a digital future", the GSMA says Nigeria currently lags behind other African countries in 4G adoption, with less than 10% of its mobile internet users connected to 4G. Therefore, rather than ramping up effort to launch 5G, increasing the coverage areas of 4G and 3G, providing reliable connectivity and reducing the cost of data should be the focus of Nigerian telecom companies and ISPs.