While Kenya leads the continent with technology penetration, only around half of the population are using broadband. A lack of smartphones, tablets, and PCs are major issues alongside the affordability of mobile data bundles. In fact, while the latest figures say that 4G networks cover 96% of the population, only around half of those with smartphones actually use more than 100 MB per month, which is around 25% of the total population.
It is critical to address the challenges with the ownership of smart devices and affordability of data, which can be high for those on very low incomes. It is also critical to extend network coverage to more areas and, as I have discussed before, provide skills for users along with an awareness of what they can do with broadband.
In that case, why would 5G matter for Kenya? Well to understand the first reason, we need to understand that there is a lack of a fixed Internet connection for most of the population, and indeed, most businesses. Even after a bump during COVID-19, the number of connections to fiber remains fewer than 700,000, but there are more than 10 million households. As Safaricom’s CTO recently remarked, even though there is huge demand for fiber, they cannot build it fast enough. Moreover, the business case for building fiber to remote areas with low incomes and a dispersed population makes it difficult to justify the expense.
5G’s high capacity means that it can offer fiber-like speeds to hundreds of households or businesses at any one time from just one base station. Rollout is fast, with each household or business requiring just one CPE (Customer Premise Equipment), which is a router and a SIM card that takes the 5G signal and provides Wi-Fi. It is also relatively affordable as existing equipment can be upgraded on the base station with fiber going to that base station – it does not require digging fiber along every street and running cables into every apartment.
For homes, affordable connectivity is critical for working and studying from home, as well as for entertainment, and it is also critical for small businesses. The use case for 5G is FWA (Fixed Wireless Access), which is the biggest driver for 5G in South Africa, the African market where 5G is most advanced. Because 5G provides much more data than 4G for not much more cost, it is cheaper per MB or GB of data to deliver, and thus relative prices tend to be lower than 4G. In South Africa, for example, consumers typically get around three times more data for the same price as 4G. In other countries, such as Austria, customers get unlimited data, much like they would on fiber, paying instead for connection speed – for them, 5G is just like fiber.
The second main use case for 5G is for business use. 5G in logistics and transport is already ready widespread, including in ports, rail depots, and logistics hubs. 5G deployment has also gathered momentum in manufacturing, energy, health, and tourism – all growth industries in Africa. Some of these industries need to be competitive to succeed, while others can offer value-added services that can boost revenues or improve safety.
5G in action in Ningbo-Zhoushan Port, China
It may still be some time before Kenya will use 5G in its consumer vehicles, as most are second-hand vehicles that don’t get replaced regularly, and there is a lack of street infrastructure or traffic lights to connect to the networks. It might also be some time before 5G is useful in agriculture or utilities where existing communications networks can do the job just fine and wide coverage would be necessary. But many industry use cases can be achieved by upgrading a few base stations in a specific location, and then implementing user equipment.
In the above use cases – homes, business, and industries – 5G is critical. The adoption of e-learning in Kenya has been very low and will continue to be if high-speed Internet is expensive.
The majority of small businesses are only now being forced to use digital tools for marketing and sales, and have not yet begun to use cloud-based software tools to manage inventory, pay staff, manage finances, or manage customer relationships. Kenya’s industries need to be competitive regionally and globally considering that, for example, tourists have a wide choice of locations, factories around the world are competing to produce goods for export markets, and logistics systems are competing with their peers on efficiency and service.
It is worth noting that 5G is not the be-all-and-end-all for Kenya, and the continent has barely started on the 5G service journey, putting it already two years behind many countries.
However, while homes and businesses in the cities will be able to get fiber as the networks grow, those in smaller towns and villages may not and the digital divide will increase. Industries might also digitalize slower than that in parts of Asia, making it harder to be globally competitive and grow, but not impossible. Progress will continue, and that is not to be sneered at. But, there is no doubt that if industry in Africa wishes to grow, create jobs, and thrive in the digital economy of the fourth industrial revolution rather than struggle decades behind the rest of the world, then it needs 5G urgently.
The Public & Private Sectors
Let’s also be clear that while the average citizen does not need a 5G phone, they desperately need 5G to give them high-speed broadband at home that the entire family can use and they desperately need it for work.
There are certain things policy makers can do such as:
Making the necessary spectrum available at low prices.Convening stakeholders to develop locally relevant industry use cases.Reducing taxes on CPEs.Providing incentives to the private sector to invest in network coverage and developing use cases.Making it easier to lay fiber to base stations.Implementing measures to protect critical infrastructure from damage.
There are also things the private sector can do such as:
Investing in network roll-out.Investing in new use cases together with their enterprise customers
Let’s work together to make that happen. Read more about Huawei’s 5G carrier solutions.