Regulator, telcos disagree over 5G network rollout

5G smartphone

A smartphone with 5 G wireless high speed internet. For the first time ever, sales penetration of 5G-capable smartphones has surpassed the sale of 4G phones

Photo credit: Shutterstock

 The Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) is locked in a tussle with top telcos pushing to roll out an ambitious fifth-generation (5G) mobile technology network.

Sources told the Nation that the regulator last week turned down a request by a leading telco to have the rollout fast-tracked. The firm offered to immediately pay for a commercial licence to allow it to launch the superfast network but CA declined.

“There are issues that must be dealt with conclusively, such as security of networks and consumer inclusivity, before the service is rolled out. We have to get it right,” a top state official told the Nation.

This came even as CA disclosed that some of its fixed wireless access (FWA) network infrastructure – which operators use to deliver ultra high-speed broadband where fibre is prohibitively expensive to lay and maintain – would be converted to support 5G technology by the end of June.

“The authority issues frequency assignments to network facilities providers to deploy network infrastructure and provide connectivity to consumers ... The 3.5 GHz band, within which most FWA deployments have been activated in Kenya, will be re-farmed from fixed wireless access to mobile wireless access for 5G technology by June 30, 2022,” the regulator said in an update on the allocation of frequencies for the three months ended March.

Telcos are eager to formally roll out 5G networks and reap commercially from the rising demand for superfast internet. The country’s main telcos, Airtel and Safaricom, have already done extensive trials on 5G from hundreds of sites across the country.

Airtel Kenya has over 600 sites in Nairobi, Mombasa, and Malindi on the pilot 5G network as it readies itself to compete for a larger share of the fast-growing data business.

Safaricom, on the other hand, has piloted 5G in Nairobi, Kisumu and Kisii, and seeks to expand the high-speed connectivity to more urban areas.

The shift to 5G, however, remains a headache for authorities in Kenya partly due to the risk of exclusion of a large chunk of consumers who lack the appropriate equipment to support the technology.

Subscribers have to acquire handsets that are compatible with 5G before they can enjoy the service, which offers much faster data download and upload speeds. Official data, however, shows that 33 million, or 56 per cent of the 59 million cellphone devices in Kenya, are feature phones.

The prices of smartphones that support 5G technology are still prohibitive in Kenya, with consumers parting with between Sh35,000 and Sh140,000 to acquire a quality one.

This problem was witnessed after the rollout of the 4G network, with telcos being forced to come up with innovative ways to increase ownership of the appropriate phones. Safaricom, for example, entered into a partnership with Google to drive smartphone sales, with customers paying as little as Sh20 a day over nine months for a device.

The Central Bank of Kenya has also decried the low smartphone ownership in Kenya, which it says risks locking out many from high-technology services such as its planned Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) – a virtual version of the shilling that will exchange on a one-to-one basis with physical cash.

“The CBDC will have a minimum viable technology requirement, which may be a sort of fourth-generation (4G) environment. There is an argument to be made that such a development could lead to greater financial exclusion such that some people may fall out of the financial system just because we have adopted a CBDC ... This is something we need to be careful about,” CBK Governor Patrick Njoroge said in a recent interview with NTV.

“We may decide, therefore, that we should wait a little more until everyone catches up because at this moment, the lower-level technologies are quite prevalent,” he added.

Besides the risk of exclusion, the rollout of 5G networks remains controversial globally, amid concerns that it may interfere with sensitive airplane instruments. Some aviation regulators in countries such as the United States fear that airplanes’ radio altimeters, which measure how far above ground a plane is to help pilots land their crafts in low-visibility situations, could be disturbed by 5G.