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5G launches in Uganda, Zambia

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Ugandans now have access to 5G services while Zambians have additional 5G options after launches of the next-generation technology by MTN and Airtel over the past week.

In Uganda, MTN was first out the gate and launched its 5G network on July 28, 2023 – two days ahead of rival Airtel – switching on 5G sites in the Kampala districts of Lugogo and Bugoloobi.

MTN plans to roll out full 5G coverage across Kampala by the end of 2024 and said that over the next two years all its basestations in major cities will be converted to 5G.

MTN Uganda had a 5G launch event today which was attended by the country's Minister of ICT and National Guidance Dr. Chris Baryomunsi, who emphasized 5G's potential to revolutionize Uganda's economy, shaping a digitally advanced future.

"5G is not just another tech advancement, it holds the power to revolutionize various industries and sectors of our economy, ushering in several new possibilities and innovations which undoubtedly shape Uganda's future for the better," the minister said on X (formerly Twitter) after the event.

Airtel followed MTN on July 30, 2023, confirming it had launched 5G services in Kampala.

Airtel said the 5G network can support up to 1 million connected devices per square kilometer compared to 4G which can only support up to 100,000 connected devices in a similar area.

"This makes 5G the suitable network over which remote teams can collaborate to undertake tasks like surgery, and shared online school classes, and farmers can share live video farming tips, engineering tasks over video and stream gaming, and other entertainment experiences," the telco said in a post on LinkedIn.

Airtel said that a 5G network can support up to 1 million connected devices per square kilometer.   (Source: starline on Freepik)
Airtel said that a 5G network can support up to 1 million connected devices per square kilometer.
(Source: starline on Freepik)

Both MTN and Airtel had previously said their networks were "5G-ready" and they were awaiting spectrum to roll out 5G services.

The Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) opened applications for the sale of 5G spectrum in May 2023, and in July both MTN and Airtel were allocated 5G spectrum at an auction.

MTN Uganda is the biggest telco in the country – according to statistics from market research company Omdia, a sister company of Connecting Africa – with more than 18.2 million subscribers and 52% market share in the second quarter of 2023.

Airtel was the second biggest with almost 46% market share and almost 15.9 million subscribers, while Uganda Telecom Ltd had 1.9% market share and 656,000 subscribers. Lycamobile, meanwhile, only had 0.2% of the market with its 78,000 subscribers at the end of June 2023.

The country did have a fifth operator, Africell Uganda; however, the company shut down its operations in Uganda in 2021.

Zambia adds 5G coverage

Last week Airtel Zambia also confirmed its commercial launch of 5G services via posts on social media. The operator said the launch coverage is limited to select areas of the capital, Lusaka.

Customers will not require a new SIM card to access 5G but will require a 5G-compatible handset. Airtel also said that 5G routers can now be purchased from any of its stores in Lusaka.

"Today marks a significant milestone as we proudly introduce our 5G network, a state-of-the-art infrastructure that provides data speeds up to 10 times faster than 4G, incredibly low latency, and the ability to seamlessly connect billions of devices," said Apoorva Mehrotra, Airtel Africa's regional director for East Africa, about the launch.

"Airtel 5G will revolutionize various sectors, such as smart cities, education, healthcare, agritech, transport systems, entertainment, and more, shaping the future of Zambia's landscape," he added.

Airtel is not the first operator to roll out 5G in Zambia. MTN launched a commercial 5G service in November 2022 in six Zambian cities.

Omdia stats show that Airtel is Zambia's biggest operator with 9.5 million mobile customers at the end of June 2023, and almost 48% market share.

MTN followed with 6.9 million mobile users, and almost 35% market share, and Zamtel was third with 3.4 million users or 17% of the market.

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*Top image source: Image by starline on Freepik.

— Paula Gilbert, Editor, Connecting Africa

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