Africa falls far behind in mobile broadband access
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Forget 3G, that’s old news. What about 4G and long-term evolution (LTE)? Using the pace at which the information and communications technology sector is innovating globally as a measure, even that will soon be old news.
Instead, prepare to welcome 5G or fifth generation connectivity. 5G is in the pipeline, courtesy of whizz-kids who are working 18 hours a day to bring on-line the technology that will provide data transmission up to several hundred times faster than current networks.
In a recent visit to suppliers in several countries across Europe and Asia, I was amazed to see advancements in 5G technology. In fact, the engineers have already developed the prototypes of 5G. This technology will deliver services, including video mail and multiplayer gaming; this comes just as most African markets are still struggling to launch 2G, let alone 3G.
As I was being taken around by the young engineers, and told how the 5G technology will allow mobile operators to provide an array of mobile services that require higher speeds, I couldn’t help but think just how Africa is falling behind.
I was reminded that in my continent, we have not even rolled out 4G. In fact, in most African countries, 3G remains a dream. Many countries still depend on the second-generation technology of yesteryear.
For me, this was yet another confirmation that unless we move with some sense of urgency, Africa will fall so far behind that it will almost be impossible to catch up. What I witnessed in those countries was that other nations and societies were not waiting for us. Together with our political leaders, particularly regulators, we spend a lot of time debating and haggling over whether a 3G licence and spectrum should be awarded, and how much it should cost.
So what is spectrum and why is it so contentious? According to Wikipedia, spectrum or airwaves are the radio frequencies on which all communication signals travel. In simple terms, when two users talk on cellphones the voice travels on the spectrum. It is the backbone of the mobile communications network.
Telecoms companies acquire spectrum only through auction. They can use it for providing any kind of service, that is, 2G, 3G, 4G or 5G. As the world becomes increasingly wireless, the allocation of the available spectrum to each technology becomes increasingly contentious.
There are hundreds of applications for radio signals, with new ones coming along all the time. Whoever “owns” a frequency band in some geographic area, for example a cellular network provider like MTN, has something of significant commercial value. Unfortunately the allocation of spectrum has become a political minefield.
The reality is that mobile broadband spectrum is vital for Africa’s socio-economic development. Therefore, greater allocation of spectrum for mobile broadband is vital for the economic and social development of the continent. Our governments must act now to release much-needed spectrum for mobile broadband services.
Increased spectrum will lower the cost of mobile devices, improve the speed of data communication, and ultimately help millions of Africans escape poverty.
For example, for sub-Saharan Africa, the Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA) found that if governments allocated more spectrum for mobile broadband over a 10-year period from 2015, it would result in $235 billion (R2.3 trillion) of additional gross domestic product (GDP) revenues. However, if the release of spectrum was delayed by five years, then these benefits would fall to $50bn in additional GDP, and $10bn in additional tax revenue.
The GSMA report also reveals that the release of mobile broadband spectrum in the digital dividend from the transition to digital terrestrial television and in the 2.6 gigahertz band by 2015 in sub-Saharan Africa could create up to 27 million jobs and increase GDP per capita by 5.2 percent, which will directly lift 40 million people out of poverty by 2025; and increase GDP and government tax revenues by $82bn and $18bn a year, respectively, by 2025.
For example, he research shows that for sub-Saharan Africa, action is needed now to secure the future connectivity and economic empowerment of Africa’s citizens.
The truth is that while Africa is the most rapidly growing market for mobile telephony, we still have one of the lowest penetration rates. Basic mobile technology has delivered very well in our markets. The fact that over 50 percent of people in Africa and the Middle East have access to reliable, affordable communication is a big stride and laudable, if we compare where we were 15 to 20 years ago.
A surge in demand for internet access and broadband capabilities is driving these developments further. Several international submarine fibre cables like the West Africa Cable System are delivering the necessary bandwidth to Africa and other parts, helping to bring down costs.
Overall, the continent’s telecoms future looks very promising and offers great opportunities to service providers, equipment vendors, and investors.
However, while the continent’s mobile market is consistently growing every year, we are not focusing on what is going to happen in the next 15 to 20 years.
We should be thinking about the speed at which we can move from basic connectivity and communication, to gearing our technology to actually work for us as a developing continent, and making it an integral part of our lives. It is a pity we are not spending enough time thinking or working on these challenges.
For example, today our customers are consuming more and more video on their mobile devices and expect a seamless streaming experience. That is why the engineers I met have realised that 5G technology will deliver higher bandwidth and broader range. This would enable our customers to experience the fastest, most reliable wireless connectivity yet, while also preserving battery power.
While the effects of broadband internet access are just beginning to be felt by many on the continent, the importance of broadband has been recognised by the UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development. The commission has set a global broadband challenge to ensure that 40 percent of households in developing countries are using broadband internet by 2015.
The International Telecommunication Union and GSMA say currently, 80MHz of spectrum is available for delivering mobile broadband service in a typical African market. In contrast, mobile operators in many middle and high-income markets have access up to 400MHz of spectrum for delivering mobile broadband.
By licensing more spectrum, governments in the region have the opportunity to increase total spectrum available by about 70 percent.
Africa is lagging behind other developing regions in internet use and even more in broadband connectivity. This is partly due to the lack of telecommunications infrastructure and slow spectrum allocation – challenges which, unless addressed now, will only be exacerbated by population growth in the future.
For example, according to the African Development Bank Group, Africa’s population will grow by 600 million to 1.6 billion by 2030. Also, the World Bank says by 2020 Africa will be more populous, more urban and will require more of everything: energy, water, food, minerals, clothes, white goods and smartphone applications.
MTN is ready for the population explosion and accompanying needs. After all, we have invested heavily in the continent’s network coverage.
During the past three years, we have spent R67bn on infrastructural development, R30bn of it in 2012 alone.
In total, including the first half of 2013, MTN has invested R80bn across the group in the past three and half years. This positions us well into the future.
Such MTN investments are aimed at seamless connectivity and allowing customers to be part of a global community.
But African governments should reciprocate by awarding more spectrum. After all, world-class connectivity enables customers in emerging markets to connect to the world, and enables access to mobile-health, mobile-agriculture and mobile-commerce services, which in turn are helping to close the digital divide and make a positive socio-economic impact.
It is exactly this kind of commitment from all role players in each sector, towards infrastructure development, which will propel the continent forward!
Despite the positive trends in mobile telecommunications in Africa, there is no room for complacency. The long and unfinished agenda of the allocation of spectrum for mobile broadband must be addressed to create a truly inclusive information society for all. Measures targeting the rolling out of broadband to areas with low connectivity are required to help alleviate infrastructure bottlenecks. An important challenge is to explore new and innovative ways to allocate spectrum, and finance new and more powerful fixed and mobile broadband networks.
In the final analysis, making significant progress in Africa will require dedication and swift action from governments and the private sector.
Sifiso Dabengwa is MTN Group’s president and chief executive.