Despite 5G rollout, data shows that 70% of Africans only have access to 2G/3G networks

Omoleye Omoruyi
As of 2020, 4G coverage in rural areas hovered around 22%, 3G was 30%, and 2G was 18% in Africa…
70% of mobile network penetration in Africa is 2G/3G, amid 5G rollout challenges
70% of mobile network penetration in Africa is 2G/3G, amid 5G rollout challenges
The need for reliable connectivity places a serious challenge on mobile network operators, even as the number of connected things are expected to increase exponentially by 2020 - Researchgate, 2017

Our social and business lives, no doubt, are centred around mobile communication, and the lockdown periods in 2020 helped us understand how vital mobile communication is. Whether that be through mobile internet, calls or text messaging.

A lack of reliable signal can render simple tasks on your mobile device, such as checking emails, text messages, or even making a call, virtually impossible.

You can fall back on a Wi-Fi network to connect. But that is not the same as being connected through a mobile signal. Internet services will work great, but services that rely on GSM or LTE protocols, such as voice calls and SMS, will still be rendered useless.

In the worst-case scenario, where there is no reliable mobile network signal or a Wi-Fi hotspot to connect to, you will be in the wilderness, hoping any of the 12 disciples will get to you.

It is important to remain connected to a mobile signal at all times. It is important to have excellent mobile coverage, regardless of whether you are on the move or stationary. So, our focus for this article is one network coverage.

3G, 4G coverage in sub-Saharan Africa

In 2019, according to GSMA, 93% of the global population was covered by a mobile broadband signal. In sub-Saharan Africa, 3G coverage expanded to 75% compared to 63% in 2017, while 4G doubled to nearly 50% compared to 2017.

Between 2015 and 2020, 4G network coverage increased two-fold globally. And almost 85% of the population was projected to be covered by a 4G network at the end of 2020. Annual growth slowed gradually from 2017, and 2020 coverage was only 1.3% points higher than 2019.

According to ITU, Africa faced the biggest gap in network coverage, where 23% (approximately 299,000,000) of the population had no access to a mobile-broadband network.

But in 2020, Africa achieved 21% growth in 4G rollout, while growth was negligible in all the other regions.

Coverage by type of mobile network, 2021
Mobile network coverage in Africa – Data: ITU

GSMA mentions that sustained infrastructure investment and innovations in technology that support the deployment of broadband significantly contributed to narrowing the coverage gap in Sub-Saharan Africa, and there were two important breakthroughs in the region:

  • 2019 marked the first year with more mobile broadband (3G and 4G) connections than 2G.
  • The coverage gap halved from 50% in 2014 to 25% in 2019.

Yet, many substantial gaps subsist in rural areas.

As of 2020, 4G coverage in rural areas hovered around 22%, 3G was 30%, and 2G was 18% in Africa. In 8 economies, including Nigeria, out of the 73 for which data are available, less than half the population owns a mobile phone.

Meanwhile, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), in the Draft Consultation Document for the Deployment of 5G Mobile Technology in Nigeria, disclosed that as of December 2019, coverage data showed that most rural areas only have access to 89.8% 2G networks coverage, while 3G has coverage of over 74%.

4G mobile network coverage in Nigeria hovered around 37% in 2020. The NCC listed five states with the highest number of telecom towers in Nigeria:

  • Lagos 9,860;
  • Ogun 3398;
  • Rivers 3329;
  • FCT 3034; and
  • Oyo 2842.

In four of the six regions, mobile broadband coverage (3G or above) was available to 90%
of the population. A coverage gap was reported significant in Africa, where, despite a 21% increase in 4G coverage since 2020, 18% of the population remained without access to a mobile broadband network.

And, states with the least number of (Base Transceiver Stations) BTS are Jigawa – 316, Yobe – 422, Zamfara – 434, Gombe – 521, and Kebbi – 561.

Meanwhile, mobile internet access in urban areas in Africa was a paltry 28%, while access to a PC was 17%. In rural areas, the number was 6.3% and 2%, respectively.

Coverage by type of mobile network, 2021
Mobile network coverage in Africa – Data: ITU

In 2021, it was reported that 4G network coverage doubled to reach 88% of the world’s
population.

According to Statista, in 2021, the number of individuals covered with at least a 3G mobile network in sub-Saharan Africa reached 906 million. This was an increase of 67 million newly covered individuals from 2020.

Since 2015, the sub-Saharan African population covered by at least a 3G mobile network has been increasing yearly, almost doubling.

In Africa, 18% of the rural population had no mobile network coverage at all, and another
11% has only 2G coverage.

Coverage by type of mobile network, 2021 (rural vs urban)

In Nigeria, the number of people using 4G increased from 12.76 million in December 2018 to 43.51 million in December 2021. By July 2021, it was reported that Nigeria only had 50% 3G coverage.

Still, in 2021, GSMA predicted that 615 million people in sub-Saharan Africa will subscribe to mobile services by 2025, equivalent to 50% of the region’s population. 28% of total connections will be on 4G by 2025 and 3% will be on 5G.

$155 billion of economic value added will be generated by mobile technologies and services by 2025 in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2020, transactions on mobile money platforms reached $490 billion.

GSMA

GSMA noted in 2021 that “as economies recover and restrictions ease, mobile technology will be even more integral to how people live and how businesses operate. It will enable new digital solutions for small and large enterprises and support the growing use of online channels by consumers. Strong investor confidence and consumer interest in digital platforms point to a digital-centric future for sub-Saharan Africa, with mobile at the centre of the creation and consumption of innovative solutions.”

However, sub-Saharan Africa, in 2022, still records low 4G penetration, as it was reported that by the end of Q1 2022, less than 30% of mobile broadband subscriptions were 4G, while over 70% of subscriptions were 2G/3G.

By February 2022, according to Statista, the number of 3G/4G mobile broadband subscriptions stood at 78.1 million in Nigeria. This was a decrease compared to the same month in the previous year.

The clog in the wheel

The low growth of 4G is largely due to the challenges of reaching (setting up efficient network coverage) rural areas where 60% of the sub-Saharan population lives.

Besides, that is a recurring issue of purchasing power, which hinders many in the population from affording either smartphones or subscriptions.

Also, telecom operators face insecurity challenges and threats to telecom facilities. These could affect not only service quality, but the fast roll-out of relevant facilities.

For instance, if one telecom site is vandalised, the effect is likely to trickle down to other sites that are connected to it.

Indeed, without uninterrupted telecom facilities and investment in telecom infrastructure (to achieve wider and faster coverage), service quality will be adversely affected.

It is estimated that it will take until 2027 for 4G mobile subscriptions to overtake other mobile internet subscriptions in Sub-Saharan Africa. 4G subscriptions will account for just under 50%, and 5G subscriptions will still be less than 4%, according to Dataxis.

For Nigeria, the CEO of Spectranet, Ajay Awasthi, says the country requires another three years for the network to stabilise.

“If you look at the number of towers, which are connected to fibre, knowing full well that 5G would be on the towers through the antennas, with backhaul and switches, among others, connectivity can only be achieved with fibre infrastructure, not through microwave because of latency and capacity issues.

“There is hardly any fibre in Nigeria at this point. If you look at most of the European countries, the number of towers connected to fibres could be 50 to 60 per cent. If you look at the number of towers, which are connected to fibre in Nigeria, I am not sure it is up to 20 per cent and could even be lower. Unless that is sorted out, 5G will remain a pipe dream in Nigeria.”

MTN has begun the rollout of 5G in five selected cities, according to a report by THISDAY, but how far can it go when 4G is still a surprising phenomenon in many areas across the country?


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