Safaricom sets date for commercial 5G network launch


Safaricom CEO Peter Ndegwa and ICT Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru during the Safaricom's launch of 5G technology on March 26, 2021. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

Safaricom #ticker:SCOM will increase its fifth-generation (5G) sites to 200 by the end of the year and commercialise the super-fast services in 2022.

The leading telco, which in March launched the 5G technology with 15 sites, says it wants to take high-speed Internet to additional towns.

Safaricom chief executive Peter Ndegwa Wednesday said the company would use the up to 200 sites for testing the upgraded network as it seeks to capitalise on burgeoning mobile Internet use in the country.

The 5G service is a central part of its attempts to further expand its data business to counter slower growth in voice calls revenue.

“This year is a trial phase and we intend to have 150 to 200 sites coming from the first use case of homes, especially in places where we do not have fibre,” Mr Ndegwa said.

“We will be able to test on such areas and help customers in terms of speed and reliability and from next year we can be able to commercialise a bit faster but I will come with that at the appropriate time.”

Safaricom in March launched the upgraded network in major urban centres, including Nairobi, Kisumu, Kisii and Kakamega, all of which routinely witness increased data traffic.

The telco said the technology will be applied on trial basis and that it does not account for the big part of its capital spending for now.

Safaricom’s capital expenditure was Sh34.96 billion in the financial year ended March and it expects that to rise to Sh40 billion by end of current financial year.

At the end of March, Safaricom had 5,526 2G base stations and 5,500 for 3G. Its 4G base stations grew 24.1 percent to 5,387, indicating that the telco is also deepening the focus on fourth-generation sites.

Both Safaricom and its closest rival Airtel Kenya are in the race for the superfast Internet, with priority given to urban centres such as Nairobi.

Airtel Kenya recently upgraded 600 network sites to meet 5G mobile Internet service capabilities in readiness to rolling out the superfast services in Nairobi, Mombasa and Malindi.

However, many of Kenya’s customers are still on 3G despite prices of cheapest 4G handsets now averaging between Sh5,000 and Sh6,000.

High prices may be a put-off for millions of subscribers willing to switch over from 4G phones to 5G despite the increased appetite for services such as ultrahigh video resolution streaming and real-time 3D gaming.

Currently, 5G phones in the Kenyan market are few and expensive. For instance, Huawei Mate 30 Pro retails at about Sh70,000 while Huawei P40 costs above Sh90,000.

The expansion will equip more individuals and enterprises with 5G for use at work, home and when on the move, helping Safaricom to tap into the burgeoning mobile Internet use in the country.

The technology can support up to one million connected devices per square kilometre compared to 4G which can only support up to 100,000 connected devices in a similar area.

This makes it suitable for providing super-fast Internet speeds in high-density areas and for linking thousands of connected devices such as in a manufacturing and supply chain management for businesses.

Chipmaker Qualcomm has indicated that 5G could achieve browsing and download speeds about 10 to 20 times faster than those offered by 4G.

That would allow a consumer to download a high-definition film in a minute or so. Mobile gamers will also notice less delay -- or latency -- when pressing a button on a controller and seeing the effect on screen.

Similarly, mobile videos should be near instantaneous and glitch-free while video calls would become clearer and less jerky under the 5G network.

This is the market that Safaricom is eyeing in the quest to increase sales from its data division.

Safaricom is aiming to rev up its data business to offset sluggish growth in mobile calls, where it has seen a small revenue growth due to saturation, forcing the firm to turn to M-Pesa and Internet to power future growth.