Although a map of Africa would show that most countries have 2G and 3G networks operational, Africa still lags behind the rest of the world in mobile internet as across the continent only approximately 5% of Africans are subscribed to mobile broadband, a long way below penetration levels quoted for other regions across the world.
However, as a sign perhaps of the direction of mobile broadband on the African continent, ITU, has recorded that the mobile broadband penetration rates are higher than those for fixed broadband.
So internet in Africa is going mobile and the statistics from Opera Software throws into light what the dismal penetration figures do not reveal. There has been a significant growth in data usage growth across Africa with Africans spending more time on the web for Social via Facebook & Twitter, searching via Google, viewing videos & listening to music via YouTube, catching up with the News via a diverse range of News sites, email and blogging.
With all that activity within the existing mobile broadband users and the potential growth for with users, it’s no doubt Mobile data is predicted to be the biggest single revenue opportunity for African network operators . But at the moment, operators are facing significant challenges on getting a return on their investment because of the stagnating or in some cases declining Average Revenue Per User, when compared to European or North American counterparts.
Nevertheless, there are significant opportunities as Africa’s communication market transforms from being consumer driven to enterprise driven and the business cases for mobile broadband strengthen. These include the provision of cloud computing services, e.g. data storage and security; broadband access and web hosting, location, information, and financial services not forgetting device companies providing the devices for connectivity and mobile working.
Mobile broadband is currently being brought to the shores of Africa via 3G technologies such as CDMA, EGPRS, WCDMA or its variants e.g. HSDPA or 3.5G. More recently countries like Angola, Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria and South Africa are planning or deploying upgrades in their wireless networks to give them even faster, more reliable mobile broadband through LTE and WIMAX.
Putting aside the head-scratching debate on what or not constitutes 3.9G or “true” 4G it is nevertheless true that the countries and regions across Africa which invest in advanced network infrastructure to provide ubiquitous broadband connections and further facilitate convergence in services through which users can connect a range of devices for games, mobile TV, video, music, navigation may find the economic activity initiated from mobile broadband a justification for their investment as they become centres of enterprise.
The economic benefit to enterprise would come through improvements in productivity and in market efficiency (through more accessible information), facilitation of transactions via mobile payments etc, technology spillover effects from infrastructure, increased revenue from government auctions of licenses, and taxes paid by the network companies, new start ups taking advantage of new business models.
Assuming spectrum availability is not a problem, and the big players such as Airtel Africa, Vodacom, MTN, Orange et al, can stomp up the exorbitant fees for the licenses, they still face substantial challenges with respect infrastructure investment for backhaul when expanding into sparse rural areas. In these areas it’s not only the challenge of network coverage but also affordability as most commentators agree that despite the best efforts of well known device manufacturers like Nokia, Samsung and other manufacturers to bring smartphones to the market at lower price points, owning a smartphone or tablet in Africa still requires substantial investment on the part of owners.
The advent of mobile telephony brought profound changes in the economies of African countries and the livelihoods of Africans. A Centre for Economic Policy Research paper found differences in GDP between countries with and without an extensive mobile network infrastructure and the OECD has found that countries with a high broadband penetration, (3.9 per 100) have higher GDP than those with lower penetration rates. It is safe therefore to say that the empowerment of individuals and the range of business opportunities for SMEs presented through unplugging the internet in mobile broadband would be a loss on GDP if investment is not made.
Lloney Monono, Bristol UK.