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22 November 2019

South Africa leads way to African 5G, but better backbones are key

For most parts of sub-Saharan Africa, 5G is not yet on the horizon, but South Africa is an exception. There, MTN says it will roll out initial commercial 5G networks next year and achieve broad coverage by 2022 (though the extent has not been specified).

The pan-African group, which is headquartered in South Africa, has named Ericsson as its 5G launch vendor. The operator’s CTIO, Giovanni Chiarelli, told the recent AfricaCom conference: “South Africa is undergoing a huge digital transformation, which will open up new business opportunities and boost the nation’s economy. Launching 5G will accomplish this transformation and, with fixed wireless access, will ensure high quality, increased capacity, and greater reliability for our customers.”

Ericsson will supply RAN, core and some transport products, and will work with MTN to identify and develop use cases, especially for industrial digitalization.

MTN is also working with Huawei on the expansion of its mobile network. The two companies have signed a memorandum of understanding to trial 5G in South Africa, in 3.3-3.8 GHz C-Band spectrum, the most commonly used area of spectrum for first-phase 5G deployments. Chiarelli said the first trial had achieved throughput speeds of over 1.6Gbps during a live test.

Airtel to invest in additional spectrum for LTE:

For most operators in Africa, though, extending LTE coverage and urban capacity will be the main focus of network investment for years to come. Airtel Africa, a subsidiary of India’s Bharti Airtel, says it will spend $70m on additional spectrum, to boost its LTE coverage in the key market of Nigeria. It plans to buy a 10 MHz block of 900 MHz spectrum from Intercellular Nigeria.

“Data is a key pillar of our growth strategy, driven by increasing 4G networks and supported by the increased affordability and increasing penetration of smartphones,” said Raghunath Mandava, CEO of Airtel Africa. Operators have their eyes on the significant growth opportunities in the continent, especially in large markets like Nigeria, which has smartphone penetration of only 35%, but data consumption that grew by over 90% between March and September this year.

Mandava added: “The acquisition of this spectrum will enable us to further deliver on this growth opportunity and continue to offer our Nigerian customers an enhanced user experience.”

Airtel Africa operates in 14 countries and has over 100m subscribers across the continent. It recently raised $750m in an initial public offering (IPO) in London, seeking funds to expand its networks.

This is particularly important at a time when parent Bharti Airtel is under intense pressure in its home market in India, where it has fallen from first to third place in the mobile operator rankings by subscriber numbers, and has been forced into a vicious price war by the disruptive impact of new entrant Reliance Jio.

It is not the only operator which will be looking to the growth potential in Africa to try to counterbalance tough markets elsewhere. Vodafone is also under intense pressure in India, with its market lead under threat from Jio, and it has also reported lackluster performance in many European markets. By contrast, its joint ventures in Africa, notably Vodacom in South Africa and Safaricom in Kenya, have been contributing good growth this year.

Airtel Africa’s footprint is mainly based on Bharti’s 2010 acquisition of Zain’s sub-Saharan Africa assets for almost $9bn, plus some subsequent smaller purchases (Airtel has also offloaded some of its African operations to Orange).

Orange is another international operator with its eyes on the growth potential in Africa, where it has a presence in 20 countries, many of them French-speaking, and where it claims 10% of subscribers across the continent. Of course, it will be hard to push the huge region towards next generation mobile broadband (4G and eventually 5G), or to deliver affordable fixed/mobile convergence, without high end backbones. Orange is joining the recent rush to invest in communications infrastructure for Africa, which has also seen webscalers like Google joining subsea cable consortia.

Orange and Liquid roll out longhaul transport links:

The French telco plans to build a new international backbone network in West Africa which will connect eight countries to the rest of the world via a network of subsea cables, linking up to all the main capital cities in the region. This will support a range of international connectivity services, including IPL (International Private Line) and EPL (Ethernet Private Line). The capital cities included are Dakar (Senegal), Monrovia (Liberia), Lagos (Nigeria), Bamako (Mali), Accra (Ghana), Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), Yamoussoukro and Abidjan (Cote d’Ivoire) and Conakry (Guinea).

Meanwhile, also contributing to high speed transport networks for Africa, Liquid Telecom claims to have launched the fastest east-to-west fiber link across the continent, running 2,600km across the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

“Liquid Telecom has connected East to West Africa with the most direct digital corridor across the southern hemisphere,” said group CEO Nic Rudnick. “By linking the DRC to Liquid Telecom’s rapidly expanding pan-African fibre network and the rest of the world, this transformative infrastructure is creating a foundation for digital growth. Fast, reliable broadband connectivity will advance society, fuel innovation and help champion pan-Africa trade.”

Until recently, there was no direct, land-based fiber network between east and west Africa. Network traffic between DRC and eastern countries like Tanzania, for example, had to be sent via London.

Nokia is working with Angola Cables on an even longer link, connecting Africa with north America over optical fiber. The new route between Sangano in Angola and Boca Raton, Miami has completed its final acceptance trial.

“By optically interconnecting the deployed MONET and South Atlantic Cable System (SACS), Angola Cables is able to further reduce latency between content providers in North America and the rapidly growing data consumption markets in Africa,” said CTO Ângelo Gama.

In the trials, latencies were reduced – to 123.4ms between Luanda, Angola and Miami, Florida; 162ms between Cape Town and Miami; and 180ms between Johannesburg and Miami. “The connection between Johannesburg and New York City will be reduced by up to 18% using the direct SACS and MONET fiber optic connection,” added Gama.

The trial used Nokia’s 1830 Photonic Service Switch wavelength division multiplexing (WDM) platform, which runs on its Photonic Service Engine coherent digital signal processor (DSP).