A woman looks at her mobile phone next to a 5G sign at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, February 25, 2019. REUTERS / SERGIO PEREZ
A woman looks at her mobile phone next to a 5G sign at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, February 25, 2019. REUTERS / SERGIO PEREZ

The global mobile industry body has urged sub-Saharan African countries to move swiftly in the allocation of spectrum to the mobile industry to   enable the roll-out of 5G technology.

5G is the latest generation of mobile technology that promises fast device speeds as well as high-quality downloads and video calls. It succeeds the 4G, 3G and 2G systems.

In a report published on Monday at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Groupe Spéciale Mobile Association (GMSA) said sub-Saharan Africa was expected to lag the rest of the world, with 3G expected to account for 60% of the region's connections by 2025.

The organisation, which represents mobile operators worldwide including handset and device makers, software companies, equipment suppliers and Internet companies, said the first commercial 5G services was forecast to be launched in the region in 2025, with 5G connections accounting for 2.6% of the total connections by 2025.

"A number of operators are already undertaking trials and evaluations, mainly those based in SA, which reflects the country's status as one of the wealthiest and technologically advanced in the region," the report said. In 2017, MTN and Ericsson announced SA's first 5G trial.

"The arrival of 5G forms a major part of the world's move towards an era of intelligent connectivity, which alongside developments in the Internet of Things, big data and artificial intelligence, is poised to be a key driver of economic growth over the coming years," GSMA director-general Mats Granryd said.

The GSMA report state that mobile technologies and services generated 7.1% ($110bn) of GDP across sub-Saharan Africa in 2017. It said the extension of the connections to rural areas in the region required investment-friendly policies in order to facilitate multiyear capital expenditure programmes.

"Two key policy enablers that can help support the continued growth of the mobile ecosystem are the implementation of the appropriate spectrum management framework and tax reforms to improve the affordability of mobile technology," the report said.

It said regulators in the region should allocate spectrum for 5G early in order to align the region with global developments in technology and network roll-out. "Although trials around the world show great potential, realising the 5G vision requires timely and affordable access to new spectrum," it said.

In the capital intensive mobile industry, predictability of policy was crucial, the report said.

The lack of spectrum was partly to blame for high data costs in SA. In his budget speech last week finance minister Tito Mboweni said data prices must fall. He said the licensing of spectrum for wireless broadband will begin this year and promised that he would "work relentlessly" with communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams to achieve this. 

Ndabeni-Abrahams is expected to issue policy direction to the sector regulator the Independent Communications Authority of SA for the licensing of spectrum.

The GSMA report also pointed out the slow switch from analogue broadcasting system to digital in the region. The switch is necessary because it will make large chunks of spectrum available for the mobile industry. SA is among countries that have not yet completed the switch. According to the report, only Namibia, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya and Mauritius have completed the digital switchover.

GSMA said 5G would account for 15% of global mobile connections by 2025. It expected an increase in the launch of 5G networks later in 2019.

The body said mobile operators around the world were investing an estimated $160bn a year on expanding and upgrading their networks.

• Njobeni is guest of Huawei at the Mobile World Conference in Barcelona.