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The Middle East and Africa (MEA) region tends to be a follower rather than a leader in the launch of new technologies.

But with 5G, some operators and markets in MEA are shaping up to be among the first in the world to launch commercial 5G services. Etisalat in the UAE and Ooredoo in Qatar have both said they will have commercial 5G fixed wireless broadband services up and running by the end of 2018. 5G trials are underway in Saudi Arabia, and operators there are expected to launch commercial 5G services in the second half of 2019.

South Africa’s Vodacom said in August that it had launched Africa’s first commercial 5G service in the perhaps unexpected setting of Lesotho, where Vodacom said two of its enterprise customers are now taking 5G services. Both Vodacom and MTN are preparing to launch 5G in South Africa, but deployment is being held up because they do not have access to the required spectrum.

Some declarations about 5G in the region have been more about marketing than substance. Earlier this year several Gulf operators claimed to have launched 5G, though with no 5G devices commercially available, those pronouncements seemed premature. And some deployments are said to be based on equipment that is not fully compliant with 5G standards. Nevertheless, there is clearly significant progress towards 5G in the region.

As is also the case for other markets where early launches of 5G are taking place, the first use case for 5G in MEA is for fixed wireless broadband. That’s because the first set of standards for 5G are only for radio technology, and CPEs for fixed wireless broadband are the first 5G devices to become commercially available.

5G-enabled smartphones are expected to come onto the market in the second half of 2019, allowing operators to use 5G as a mobile broadband technology, with enhanced capabilities for applications including video and augmented reality. The standards for 5G core networks are expected to be completed by the end of 2019 and will enable new capabilities for 5G, such as network slicing, massive machine-type communications, and ultra-low latency.

In MEA, new use cases and applications for 5G are expected to develop around the smart city projects that are underway in the advanced Gulf markets, as well as major forthcoming events, such as the Expo 2020 exhibition in the UAE, and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Vodacom is hoping to develop new use cases with a social purpose for 5G in e-education and telemedicine.

5G will have been launched in about 10 MEA countries by the end of 2023, by which point Ovum forecasts that there will be 26.8 million mobile 5G subscriptions in the region, though that will represent less than 2% of the 1.7 billion mobile subscriptions in MEA at the end of 2023.

But 5G will still be a young technology in 2023, with economies of scale yet to take full effect. And perhaps a more important indicator than the number of 5G subscriptions is the rate of progress in developing new use cases and businesses for 5G in the region.

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