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Mobile device access is highlighted by MTN’s 5G rollout.

The launch of the 5G network in Nigeria by MTN has put the spotlight on the need for the deployment of affordable mobile devices that are enabled to use it.

Stakeholders in the telecommunications industry in Nigeria gathered on September 18 at MTN’s headquarters to witness the commercial launch of the 5G network in Lagos.

MTN is the first telecom operator to launch the network in Nigeria’s commercial capital with over 20 million people and the largest mobile phone density. Karl Toriola, CEO of MTN Nigeria, said the national launch is still on the way. Abuja will be the next city to see a 5G launch.

As Adia Sowho, chief marketing officer of MTN Nigeria, declared “5G is live” to animated applause, there was an unspoken reality in the gathering: 5G-enabled devices have limited access.

Umar Garba Danbatta, executive vice chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), who attended the launch, put words to reality while he was making his presentation.

“You must have a 5G-enabled device to be able to connect to a 5G network,” he said.

But where does one get a 5G-enabled mobile device and an affordable one too? 5G can mean a superior phone experience: one that enables high-quality gaming (with the possibility of real-time, multiplayer mobile gaming), the downloading of high-res movies within seconds (rather than minutes), and improved connectivity. 5G speed capabilities were amply displayed at the MTN launch with a 5G network completing a large file download in the space of two minutes which took a 4G network eight hours to complete.

5G-enabled device deployment in Africa generally has been hampered by the cost of the devices. The cost of the cheapest 5G device currently stands at around $350 (N150,000), which is not affordable for many Nigerians. While some device manufacturers have committed to bringing costs down to around $150, experts like Craig Wilson, vice-president, global telecommunications industry at IBM, say the high cost of 5G phones remains a major impediment that will impact the launch of the network on a commercial scale because there are not enough mobile devices capable of receiving it.

“Globally, the rollout of 5G has been in process since 2019. Yet deployment across Africa has been much slower, with only 6 African countries launching the network,” Wilson said.

Nonetheless, Toriola remains optimistic that access to affordable mobile devices will not limit the success story of the 5G network in Nigeria.

“There is a number of handsets from Huawei, OPPO, and Nokia that already deployed 5G software onto their handsets and they are live. Some of the customers that use these handsets will see that,” Toriola said. “Samsung and Apple have not downloaded the software onto the phones that allow you to use 5G in Nigeria. That is going to happen in October and November. People will ask why I am not seeing 5G, it is a slight delay from the handset manufacturers.”

The market can also look forward to more manufacturers adding more devices despite a global shortage of microchips and supply chain issues. A new report by Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) said the global average cost of a smartphone went from 22 percent of the average monthly income in 2021 to 20 percent in 2022. In sub-Saharan Africa, the cost of smartphones rose from 41.0 percent to 39.0 percent.

A4AI says this is a marginal decrease, considering the importance smartphones play in the connectivity of people around the world and their role in securing meaningful connectivity and digital participation. Nonetheless, at over N150,000 per 5G-enabled device, only a few Nigerians would seize the opportunity.

Toriola said MTN is also increasing investment in the 4G network.

“4G remains our bread and butter. As we speak, we are accelerating 4G because we are not taking our eyes off the 4G ball until it becomes ubiquitous across the country. We want to continue to lead in 4G even as we assert our authority and leadership in 5G,” he said.

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