By Sonny Aragba-Akpore
2001 and 2021 are 20 years apart. Both years have history separating them. While 2001 was the year of telecommunications revolution when Digital Mobile Licenses (DML) were awarded thus changing the narrative of “telephone is not for the poor”, 2021 tried to outdo 2001 principally to massage some personality egos. And so Nigeria joined a race it knew very little about the tracks and expected to win big. There was excitement in government circles about the life abundance that the Fifth Generation technology (5G) was likely to offer. Nearly two years after, that race appears to be against the wind.
Hypes visited the licensing process and awards of 5G licenses in Nigeria.Then Minister, the regulator preached sermons of the value and excitements that 5G will add to the country. There was so much energy deployed to the campaign on what to come and the beauty of the technology.
Unsuspecting Nigerians joined in the excitement. Licences were awarded on December 21, 2021 to MTN Nigeria and a little known Mafab Communications. They had a roll out timeline of August 2022 but the regulator granted an extension of five months to Mafab Communications to get ready. Thus the regulator changed the rules in between the game thus sending the first signal that all was not well.
MTN tried to weather the storm despite the challenges (even when it will not admit it openly) and “launched “ a semblance of 5G services in parts of Nigeria. But that is where the excitement stopped. Airtel, a late arriver, shows some promises as we wait.
And so, the hype built around 5G has left everyone including the operators and regulators speechless as there is very little tangible evidence of availability of services so far. We have now accepted our fate as the wait goes on.
By December 21, 2023, it will be exactly two years when the noise about 5G started in Nigeria.
There are so far, three supposed operators for the services: MTN Nigeria, Mafab Communications and Airtel Nigeria but as things stand today, the noise has died down as Nigerians await in their various corners for the much talked about 5G services.
On June 19, 2023, last of the three to acquire the 5G licence, Airtel, kicked off 5G network rollout in four locations, Lagos, Ogun, Rivers and Abuja; and the firm is targetting coverage of the entire country by the end of the current financial year.
Airtel said for anyone to enjoy the innovative service, the subscriber must have a 5G compatible device and be within coverage area. Very good.
The service provider explained that it unveiled a non-standalone version, which it described as being far better in service delivery. Its claim is yet to be verified as the operator promised its subscribers speed of up to 100 times faster than 4G, ultra-low latency and increased network capacity.
This launch came six months after Airtel acquired a 100MHz of spectrum in the 3500MHz band and 2x5MHz of 2600MHz spectrum from the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) for $316.7 million.
With 60 million subscribers in Nigeria accounting for 27 per cent market shares as at April, on its GSM network, Airtel explained that it would use the purchase to improve the quality of its 4G network, and launch 5G properly.
Airtel Nigeria boss, Carl Cruz, said the 5G revolution is a quantum leap from 4G, stressing that though the latter (4G) is remarkable, 5G opens a new vista. We agree, but….
Life is definitely going to get more interesting and easier, he boasted.
“We can only be limited by the limit of our imagination,” Cruz told his audience at the launch.
The Airtel chief said with 5G, there would be more collaboration among stakeholders in the telecoms space to do new things with Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Internet of Things, Smart Cities, among others.
He commended the NCC, for creating the opportunity for Nigeria to join the first 60 countries to roll out the service adding “Airtel Nigeria is proud to be an early mover with 5G technology, not just in Africa, but all over the world. Thanks to the commitment of the Nigerian government, 5G became a reality early in Nigeria, when only about 60 countries had access worldwide. In addition to that, the frequency spectrum band allocated to 5G will make the experience more worthwhile for consumers.”
Airtel Nigeria said it wants to make 5G accessible and widespread in the country and to ensure more Nigerians have access to the technology as the firm offers its router for N30,000, in partnership with a major equipment vendor to deliver its services at near pocket friendly prices.
He said though 5G is positioned to consume more data because it enables more speed and latency, “the rate and prices of data will remain the same.”
And contrary to bookmakers predictions, Mafab Communications which won 5G licence along side MTN in December 2021, announced a soft launch of its 5G network in Abuja and Lagos, late January 2023 with claims that it has also launched in four other cities and assured Nigerians of super high speed internet connectivity for data service as well as seamless voice service.
But strangely, six months after, not much has been heard about its services in the cities it claimed the services were available.
Although, Mafab Communications appears to be a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) specifically arranged to bid for the license in 2021, paying the license fees was a big plus for it, but that appears to be where the excitement ended as eager subscribers await the much-talked about fast speeds and clean voice communication on its network.
Mafab claims it will be offering voice and data services from day one of its rollout, stressing that it will ride on an existing telecom company to rollout its services to Nigerians on the 5G infrastructure and will continue to expand as the market grows.
But industry watchers are skeptical about the capacity of Mafab to rollout 5G, without a visible telecom infrastructure.
Analysts say “Mafab is not a known telecom operator and has no subscriber base like other established telecom operators in the country. There are no visible offices across the country and customer care service centres where intending subscribers could go and make enquiry about their services in order to sign up on its network”.
Questions are being asked as to the possibility of a successful rollout of Mafab’s 5G services to Nigerians who have been waiting since 2021 when it won the 5G licence.
It is not clear who their technical partners are but it will be interesting to know its roll out plans after getting a five month extension to begin services granted to it by industry regulator, Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) in August 2022 and the number of customer centres it currently has across the country.
Analysts also say some are also asking how to sign up on the Mafab 5G network, and the number of subscribers that have signed up in the last few months after its rollout.
Not much has been heard from the company since January 2023 when it carried out a soft launch in Abuja and Lagos.
MTN Chief Executive, Karl Toriola, in a report unveiled by MTN recently said: “We became the first mobile network operator to launch a 5G network in Nigeria, providing coverage in key cities in the six geopolitical regions. Since its commercial launch in September 2022, we have rolled out 588 sites and brought the 5G network to 5G-enabled smartphones, starting with iPhone users”.
“We accelerated the coverage and capacity of our 4G network in response to the rising data traffic, bringing 4G population coverage to 79.1 per cent (up by 8.7 per cent). 4G traffic now constitutes 79.5 per cent (up by 9.7 per cent) of the total traffic on our network,” Toriola added.
The report noted that MTN managed to add 7.2 million Nigerian subscribers in 2022, an increase of 10.5 per cent to 75.6 million, despite the telco having to drop millions of users, who had not properly adhered to the country’s SIM card registration process.
The adoption of the Fifth Generation (5G) network is fast expanding as MTN disclosed that it has activated over 700 sites across 13 cities since its launch in August 2022.
Connected cities, according to MTN, include Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Kano, Owerri, Ibadan, Maiduguri, Abeokuta, Ife, Warri, Enugu, and Ifo.
On the journey so far, MTN Nigeria’s Chief Technical Officer, Mohammed Rufai, said Nigerians are currently enjoying the benefits of 5G.
Rufai justified that Nigeria was ready for the technology, saying the capacity has always been there in terms of the availability of the spectrum, fibre infrastructure, market and technical know-how. He disclosed that 5G would not only complement the country’s broadband target of 70 per cent penetration by 2025 but also ensure that telecoms services expand to remote areas.
Although MTN wants to deepen 5G adoption, it admits that devices, especially mobile, for the technology, are still not much in the market, while smartphones prices are highly exorbitant, but customers could still enjoy the benefits of the technology through fixed wireless infrastructure, saying there are 5G routers that people can get and connect to WiFi.
MTN says some Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) are currently working with MTN on 5G devices with a view to bringing the price of acquisition to a manageable level.
But there are still bottlenecks on the issue of Right of Way (RoW), especially for fibre expansion into states.
Through efforts of the Federal Government, more states are opening up and seeing the economic benefits of such move especially to take services to many more locations in the interest of the people.
Inspite of the expected trappings of 5G, first movers in Africa are facing teething problems that stand to delay their 5G goals. “The challenges have revolved around spectrum regulation clarity, commercial viability, deployment deadlines, and low citizen purchasing power of 5G enabled smartphones, and expensive internet.”
At least, MTN Nigeria admitted this.
Ethiopia ,Botswana, Egypt, Gabon, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mauritius, Nigeria, Senegal, Seychelles, South Africa, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, have shown some inroads in actualising their services. But many of these countries have delays in rolling out.
Botswana’s Mascom unveiled 5G to residents of the capital Gaborone early in February 2022 only in four sites with plans to lay more than 100 base stations by the end of 2022. Its not clear whether it saw this through.
Egypt in February, awarded Orange spectrum from the Egyptian government that now allows it to test 5G networks just like Vodafone Egypt, Egypt Telecom and Etisalat Egypt. Though promising, Egyptians will have to wait for 5G services.
Gabon’s Gabon Telecom is yet to go commercial since November 2019 when it was licensed but Its CEO is targeting 2023 but no details about this.
Kenya has been testing the technology for a year now, but internet subscribers will have to wait till the end of the year, when the country’s telecoms regulator is expected to have issued mobile operators with 5G licenses. The country is expected to account for more than half of the continent’s tiny number of 5G mobile subscriptions in 2026.
Lesotho Vodacom was given a temporary spectrum by the Lesotho government in 2018 to experiment with 5G technology and has been a journey of pain.
Squabbles between Vodacom, Econet and the regulator have hindered any meaningful 5G roll-out.
In July 2020, Madagascar’s Telma followed South Africa to launch a commercial 5G but three weeks later, the country’s regulator told the company to halt its plans.
Mauritius announced the country’s first 5G network deployment to cover four zones but didn’t share plans for a fully commercial roll-out.
Since their first 5G tests in November 2020, Senegal’s Sonatel and Orange continue to do a number of trials in Dakar but the network still remains largely unoperational.
In Seychelles, citizens greeted the country’s 5G launch in 2020 with mistrust, expressing concern over health hazards. A year later, citizens in six regions are getting faster speeds of 1.2Gbps from Cable and Wireless Seychelles, for up to 100GB of use.
South Africa the continent’s earliest adopter of 5G, rolled out the technology on a temporary spectrum, but amid heavy strain on networks during the pandemic, Vodacom, Rain, and MTN were ordered to suspend that use from November 2021. In March, the country earned nearly $1billion from its long-awaited 5G spectrum auction.
In January 2020, Uganda became the first East African nation to test the possibility of launching a 5G network with ZTE and MTN. But a commercial launch is yet to happen.
On Feb. 24, 2022, Zimbabwe’s Econet announced that it had launched the country’s first 5G network and would activate more sites thereafter.
Beautiful as 5G is,there are indeed bottlenecks and only honest network providers will admit this.