Driving digital progress in Africa through 5G

Driving digital progress in Africa through 5G

At Huawei’s Day0 Forum 2024, taking place on the eve of Mobile World Congress 2024, MTN Group’s Chief Strategy and Transformation Officer, Chika Ekeji, gave a keynote speech to explain how 5G is driving digital progress in Africa.

Ekeji focused on the opportunities that 5G provides for value creation, explaining that MTN aims to unlock the dividends of 5G across Africa. The group is present in 19 markets, with a user base approaching 300 million.

He noted that 5G must be seen within context, and that this is of course different for Africa than for more developed markets. MTN is firmly focused on delivering the benefits of a modern connected life to everyone, and delivering this requires a well-considered strategy. To achieve this, MTN focuses on four strategic priorities – building the largest and most valuable platforms; driving industry-leading connectivity operations; creating shared value; and accelerating the transformation of its portfolio.

Exploring 5G capabilities to enable use cases in Africa, Ekeji noted that the technology is initially enabling enhanced mobile broadband and improved Fixed Wireless Access across he continent, and he noted 5G’s increasing prevalence is facilitating industrial use cases that require massive IoT.. This growing availability of reliable connectivity is further capable of supporting enhanced network slicing, offering enhanced security and the ability to meet more diversified requirements for the digital progress of Africa.

Since 2020, MTN has launched 5G in four African markets – South Africa, Nigeria, Zambia and Uganda. Ekeji noted that MTN Group’s 5G network coverage reaches around 50 million people, with EMBB and FWA use cases driving usage thus far and 5G data accounting for around 3-5% of total network traffic. He also touched on the importance of private networks (a growing consideration  for Africa’s enterprise segment). MTN is aiming to deploy 5Gin more markets by year-end 2024 and expand its 5G population coverage by up to  10 million people.

Ekeji outlined the three main ‘horizons’ for 5G use cases, noting that core connectivity was of course the foundation, with premium connectivity enabling scenarios including edge computing, B2B connectivity, and private networks. Operators will then go on to develop solutions supporting a wide variety of use cases, such as IoT, AR/VR, B2B2C monetisation, etc.

By 2030, Ekeji shared GSMA estimates indicating that the GDP impact of 5G in Sub-Saharan Africa may reach US$26 billion, equivalent to around 0.48% of  the region’s economy by that time. He noted that the retail, manufacturing, and agriculture sectors in particular stand to benefit from enhanced 5G connectivity, while many other areas would also see their efficiency enhanced.

Ekeji argued that the social value of 5G is equally important to its economic value. With fixed broadband penetration rates typically below 2% in many African markets, 5G presents an opportunity to further democratise internet access. Ekeji noted that 5G can create more opportunities in both healthcare and education, furthering the social impact that it will enable.

Focusing on each of these areas, Ekeji began by exploring the potential of 5G for the mining industry in Africa - a major pillar of the continent’s economy that stands to benefit substantially from the improved efficiencies enabled by 5G implementation. He emphasised that even basic network connectivity enables scenarios that can improve the efficacy of extractive industry operations. Further benefits can be realized by adopting advanced technologies including 5G + IoT, AI surveillance, and drones. Many of these use cases can also apply to the logistics of port management, with Ekeji noting that remote operation, surveillance and AR assistance can enable autonomous workflows, better energy efficiency and improved productivity in that segment.

On the subject of healthcare, Ekeji elaborated on challenges and the healthcare divide in Africa and underlined how 5G has the potential to address this sector. As of 2020, almost 40 countries in the World Health Organisation’s Africa index reported having fewer than 20 medical doctors per 10,000 people. Here 5G can help to increase access to healthcare services via remote consultations, CT and ECG monitoring, as well as helping to train more doctors via modern immersive experience even remotely. In the future, more advanced use cases such as remote surgery and medical delivery via drones will become feasible. In addition to the healthcare divide, Africa also has a significant educational divide, with vast numbers of high school-age young people not being educated. Distance learning enabled by 5G presents a means of addressing this issue, whether for general learning, higher education, or vocational learning.

To properly position the continent to take full advantage of 5G, Ekeji outlined a set of mitigations essential to addressing some barriers to 5G adoption. To improve coverage, 5G-ready spectrum must be made available promptly and at fair prices, with regulatory policies put in place to support effective rollouts. Further, bringing down the cost of entry-level smartphones is also essential, and Ekeji noted that it would require device financing schemes as well as policies to support low-cost manufacturing or reduced import duties on handsets. Services will also need to be affordable, which Ekeji argued can be increasingly achieved via operational efficiencies e.g. using green energy solutions to improve reliability and reduce costs, or making more effective use of spectrum via refarming, virtualisation, and automation.

In conclusion, Ekeji argued that while policies and practices would certainly spur 5G adoption, better understanding is required around the benefit that 5G can enable, both for Consumer and Enterprise customers.. To address this, the telecom industry needs to better articulate the capabilities and value proposition of 5G to all stakeholders, using solutions as a means to demonstrate the value proposition. 


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