4G uptake driving surge in mobile broadband adoption

5G still far from Sub-Sahara Africa Horizon


The generational shift to mobile broadband networks across the world continues to gain momentum, driven by improved coverage of higher speed networks, more attractively priced data tariffs and greater availability and affordability of smartphones.

This is according to a New Report by GSMA, ‘The Mobile Economy: Sub-Saharan Africa 2017’, which was launched at the GSMA Mobile 360 – Africa event held in Dar-es-Salaam Tanzania.

At the end of 2012, mobile broadband connections (3G and 4G technologies) accounted for a quarter of total connections (excluding M2M). This increased to 55% by the end of 2016, with 4 billion mobile broadband connections.

An additional 2.3 billion mobile broadband connections are forecast between 2016 and 2020, with the proportion of the total rising to 73%. The rapid migration to 4G remained a key feature in 2016, with 4G connections increasing 55% in the year to 1.7 billion. Indeed, the proportion of 4G connections worldwide is forecast to almost double between 2016 and 2020 from 23% to 41%. As a result, by 2020, 2G will no longer be the dominant technology in terms of connections.

The report further shows that investments made by Mobile Operators LTE network rollouts, have been instrumental in driving the surge in 4G adoption. As of 2016, 580 LTE networks had been deployed in 188 countries. The developing world accounted for three quarters of the new network launches in 2016 and now represents just under half of total LTE networks, up from one quarter in 2012.

“Mobile Broadband is growing rapidly across the region as well. At the end of 2016 about a third of the total connections around the region were based on mobile broadband services. However by 2020 this will rise by tw thirds of the connections across the region based on mobile broadbands,” said Mr. Kenechi Okeleke, Lead Analyst GSMA Intelligence in an interview with CIO East Africa.

He added that the key driver to this was the increased investment in mobile broadband network. “Between 2007 and 2016, the deployment of 2G has been declining actually in 2016 there was no deployment of 2G Network. 3G networks rose rapidly between 2009 and 2014. It has slowed down abit but then from 2012 when the first 4G Network was launched the number of 4G networks has continued to rise rapidly. As Mobile networks invest more in 4G we will see more and more people adopt 4G services,” he added.

In 2016, the report showed that 4G networks reached almost 60% of the world’s population, up from 50% in 2015 and 11% in 2012. In the developing world, half of the population is covered by 4G; this is expected to increase to almost 70% by 2020. In contrast, 4G coverage levels in the developed world, at 93% of the population, are only expected to improve by two percentage points to 95% by 2020.

The proliferation of smartphones and other advanced devices connected to increasingly higher speed networks both 3G and 4G continues to drive the use of data-intensive applications, including video and music streaming, browsing and file downloads. This surge in mobile data traffic means that volumes are expected to grow at a CAGR of 47% between 2016 and 2020 to reach almost 40 EB per month by 2020, according to Ericsson.

On 5G Mr. Kenechi said, “5G from a technology perspective is beginning to crystalise from a global perspective but I am afraid it is not at the horizon of the Sub-Sahara Africa at the moment. At least not in the next four years or there about. Globally we see the likes of China and South Korea leading the drive towards 5G. The events that these countries will be holding in the coming years like the World Cup will be factors that drive development of 5G.”

He further added, “New use cases emerging across the world is another cause. As the new use cases start to make sense and people begin to invest in them then we should see the uptake of 5G in a global scale. Our expectation is that in the not too distant future we will see these use cases make sense in Africa and then this will attract investment into 5G.”

Over time 5G will see a major shift in how cellular networks are designed and what they are used for. Mobile operators will use new network architectures, as well as new radio technologies, to achieve the flexibility required to serve an extremely diverse set of applications from mission-critical communications between machines to highly immersive entertainment and fingertip control over remote devices and appliances.

The report further shows that 5G will be delivered in a number of phases; the preemptive phase will comprise fixed-wireless access networks using millimetre wave (mmW) spectrum, currently championed by Verizon in the US. While there will likely be a handful of pre-5G wireless networks, including those linked to sporting events taking place ahead of the standardisation date, the first commercial 5G cellular networks will launch in late 2019 and early 2020.

These networks will be built on evolved LTE (Release 15) and will offer increased performance. 5G’s second phase, based on LTE Release 16, will deliver mobile data over mmW frequencies, facilitating a massive increase in bandwidth potential.

The desire to frame the development of the 5G standard and gain first-mover advantage is seeing operators set ambitious targets for 5G commercial launches. 5G is the first technology cycle that the mobile industry is approaching in a state of maturity, with subscriber penetration close to demographic ceilings in most developed markets, and revenue growth averaging low single digits globally. As a result, the imperative to deliver a new network technology is stronger than ever.

The following look set to host the first commercial 5G network deployments:

South Korea – KT has announced that it will launch commercial 5G services in 2019

Japan – NTT DoCoMo has announced that it will launch commercial 5G services in 2020

China – China Mobile plans to deploy 10,000 5G base stations by 2020

US – operators have been testing and developing fixed-wireless access solutions using mmW technologies, and are expected to be among the first to launch commercial 5G wireless networks

Europe – in July 2016, the major European operators published a 5G manifesto, which indicated a target of launching 5G in at least one city in each of the European member states by 2020

Middle East – Etisalat has indicated that it will launch a nationwide 5G network in time for Expo 2020 in the UAE.

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