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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Compiled by Monica Blake
Growing mobile market in Africa
Mobile subscriber numbers in Africa increased by over 1,000 per cent between 1998 and 2003 to reach 51.8 million. Mobile user numbers have long passed those of fixed line, which stood at 25.1 million at the end of 2003. According to Michael Minges, Head of ITU’s Market, Economics and Finance Unit:
Mobile technology is the information society in Africa. It is a technology that has permeated more widely than any other into new areas, and we must examine how we can utilise this technology going forward, to help narrow the digital divide.
Mobile telephony has been critical in boosting access to telecommunications in Africa and has helped substantially lift numbers of telecommunications users. Mobile penetration had reached 6.2 per cent at the end of 2003, in contrast to 3 per cent for fixed line. The rise of mobile usage has been driven by a combination of factors: demand, sector reform, the licensing of new competition and the emergence of major strategic investors, such as Vodacom, MTN, Orascom and Celtel.
With the region’s limited fixed line penetration effectively curtailing Internet access via more traditional access methods, mobile technology now has the power to drive the uptake of Internet. So-called second generation services such as wireless application protocol (WAP) or short messaging service (SMS) are gaining ground: South Africa tops the monthly SMS league table with 17 messages per month, putting it ahead of the global average of four. Innovative regional specific applications have also helped drive SMS and WAP usage – mobile banking in Nigeria, for example, or providing election results in Kenya. Interest in these applications indicates a broader level of demand for data services. The 2.5 generation – general packet radio services (GPRS) have now been launched in three of the region’s markets with a number of other networks on the continent now GPRS ready. With the capacity to provide higher speed Internet access, GPRS could provide a solution to problem of a lack of Internet access.
Meanwhile, fixed wireless networks are being harnessed to provide 3G services in a number of countries, and a mobile 3G network looks set for launch in Angola. Given the demand for Internet access, these wireless technologies could provide the solution to Africa’s Internet future. The best known such technology is WiFi, although longer range technologies such as WiMax, which offers high speed connectivity over a range of up to 50 km, could also have a key role to play in helping deploy a “portable” Internet solution for the region. Whatever the particular technology, a clear gap in the market exists for the provision of Internet access technologies to counter a lack of fixed lines in the region, although GSM licence holders are likely to want to ensure that their share of any potential markets is not eroded by alternative technologies.
ITU Telecom Africa 2004
The sixth regional ITU Telecom Africa 2004 exhibition and forum was held at the Cairo Convention and Exhibition Centre (CICC), Egypt on 3-8 May. The event, which was opened by Mr Hosni Mubarak, President of the Arab Republic of Egypt, was notable for the commitment and participation of African participants both in the exhibition and in the forum and for the tremendous spirit of optimism expressed. The theme of the meeting was “Access Africa”.
Mr Yoshio Utsumi, Secretary-General of ITU, said:
The event has ably reflected the dramatic changes which have taken place in the region’s telecommunications sector in the last decade. It has helped to cement awareness of the kinds of technology which should be utilised, and the approaches which should be taken to help Africa’s future telecommunications sector growth.
In his opening ceremony speech, Mr Utsumi focused on some of the changes which have taken place on the region’s ICT landscape – the liberalisation of markets and the subsequent opportunities for increased competition, as well as new technologies that are set to play a vital role in Africa’s ICT growth.
Dr Ahmed Nazif, Egypt’s Minister of Communications and Information Technology, also highlighted the growth that has occurred within the region’s ICT markets, and outlined initiatives which were to be implemented to continue to boost the uptake of ICT in his country, such as the availability of low-cost PCs with favourable payment terms, the Broadband Initiative inaugurated by President Mubarak during Africa 2004 or the Smart Village, a state-of-the-art park to introduce technology and attract investments for both multinational businesses and local small and medium enterprises. Despite a rapid growth in some areas, however, many challenges still remain for the region; how these challenges are addressed will be of crucial importance if the rollout of ICT is to continue in the region. He also underlined the importance of education in a knowledge society and said that education had become one of Egypt’s top national projects.
Mr Atef Ebeid, Prime Minister of Egypt, spoke of the need for the development of regional solutions to help to improve access to ICTs – the key to the region’s growth. He outlined how Egypt has itself embarked upon a vigorous programme of economic reform over the last 20 years. He said:
The development of Egypt’s ICT industry, through private-public partnerships, has played a pivotal role in this reform programme. The need still remains, in Egypt, as well as elsewhere on the continent, for greater understanding of and access to ICT, improved cooperation with the rest of the world, and effectively enforced intellectual property rights, with regard to the information society.
A key theme of Africa 2004 focused on how to continue to expand the region’s ICT coverage through wireless technology. This was outlined at the beginning of the event, when ITU unveiled its latest “African telecommunications indicators” report, a report which highlighted just how significant mobile technology had been in boosting the reach of telecommunications into new areas.
Despite rapid growth in key areas, the region’s overall levels of access to ICT remain woefully low – with fewer than 6 per cent of Africans having access to telecommunications. Widening access to ICTs was therefore a key theme at the Africa 2004 forum. Sessions such as “Building the infrastructure” examined critical issues surrounding the deployment of new access technologies, whilst other forum sessions looked at the financing of future ICT growth and at how to build a business model which works for the Africa region. Africa 2004 provided opportunities for follow-up debate on the first phase of World Summit on the information society (WSIS).