Planning for 5G success in Sub-Saharan Africa

Blog attributed to GSMA’s Head of Sub Sahara Africa, Angela Wamola

Spectrum planning is key to the successful rollout of mobile services. While the rollout of 5G is only growing, what happens now with spectrum policy will have a massive impact on the success of 5G and its deployment in Sub-Saharan Africa. Forward-thinking governments and regulators across the region have the opportunity to make decisions to help make the most of the prospects 5G offers.

So, what should governments and regulators do next? In a new report, we look at current spectrum assignments and future needs across Sub-Saharan Africa. The report then sets out a roadmap to help governments and regulators enable 5G in the most efficient way possible. It also provides recommendations based on international best practice.

The first step on the path to setting successful 5G spectrum policy is the development of a spectrum roadmap that, step-by-step, sets out a plan from spectrum band possibilities to spectrum awards. Importantly, although the steps may be the same for every country, the detailed activities and timing under each may vary. A vital part of the roadmap process is spectrum clearance and defragmentation. Consultations with all parties during the process are, therefore, critical for success.

One country off to a good start is Nigeria. With its recently launched national policy for 5G, the country has pledged to make 600 MHz of mid-band spectrum available in the 3.5 GHz range. Support for tech neutral licensing also allows mobile operators to use bands such as 2.3 and 2.6 GHz for 5G when needed. That makes it a role model for other countries in the region.

Getting spectrum valuation right is another key step. A closer look at this has shown that African countries  account for a large proportion of the highest spectrum prices globally, which are strongly linked with limited coverage and lower network speeds. Furthermore, when spectrum prices are adjusted by income, Africa accounts for about half of all the high or extremely high spectrum prices worldwide. Even excluding extreme outliers, spectrum prices remain high. Median prices are four times higher than in high-income countries and twice as high as the global median.

Planning and licensing approaches may vary depending on factors such as (i) the density of mobile use in the country,(ii) the current development of 3G and 4G, (ii) and the plan on moving incumbents to alternative frequency bands or technologies

For already assigned spectrum, it may be necessary to realign the band assignments to provide contiguous ranges. Spectrum with technology neutral licensing is also critical for a faster 5G adoption, when it is time, in order to maximise spectrum efficiency.

At the end of 2020, 303 million people across Sub-Saharan Africa were connected to the mobile internet, equivalent to 28 per cent of the population, according to “The Mobile Economy – Sub-Saharan Africa 2021” report. With digital services set to be at the heart of a post-pandemic world, the urgency to bring unconnected communities online, particularly vulnerable groups such as women, has never been greater.

The integration of 5G into lives and work has the potential to impact African communities and economies even more than previous generations. But not all 5G networks are equal, and the right policies can help governments and regulators to make the most of them, both now and in the future.

The report is available for download here.