While some economists look at a country’s mean income and utilities infrastructure as anecdotal indicators of its financial well-being, internet penetration has quickly become another key factor in this equation, and with good reason.
According to research from Telecommuni-cations Management Group, for every 1% increase in a country’s internet penetration, GPD per capita increases by US$493, and a 1% increase in mobile penetration results in a per capita increase of US$240. Many are now looking to broadband as the next leap in bringing connectivity to the African continent, and wireless broadband has shown itself to be the most efficient, sustainable and cost-effective solution to bridge the continent’s technology gap and drive broadband service in rural and remote areas.
The regional growth of wireless services is certainly not a new development. Research firm Informa Telecoms and Media has said that as far back as 2001, the number of Africa’s wireless telecommunication subscribers had overtaken the number of fixed-line subscribers in Africa, and they project there will be 310 million wireless subscribers across the continent by 2010. The deployment and use of wireless technologies have overtaken fixed-line installations because deployment is faster and more economically efficient.
In South Africa, particularly, the lack of deep-sea cable access and bandwidth to the rest of the world have proven challenging to offering broadband services. South Africa is mostly reliant on radio and fibre. Yes, cost of deployment in Africa is relatively high, owing to a lack of power and transmission. Many believe that wireless broadband, and particularly 3G CDMA, holds the key to fulfilling Africa’s broadband connectivity needs. In developing markets such as Africa, the mobile phone often provides consumers with their first exposure to the internet. Whether used for voice or data services, 3G has become the technology of choice for operators in developing markets for several key reasons:
Efficiency – 3G CDMA makes very efficient use of spectrum resources. With so many customers to serve, making the best use of scarce spectrum and public funds is important. Additionally, operators can provide voice and data services across large land areas. This enables them to minimise their infrastructure requirements, thereby also minimising service deployment and system maintenance costs.
Flexibility – 3G CDMA serves the needs of urban business customers needing high-performance broadband, and urban and rural customers, who both need low-cost voice and basic broadband access. It is optimised for lower frequencies, which reduces the number of cells required for coverage and makes deployment less expensive.
Longevity – infrastructure deployment costs have long been a hurdle to bridging the digital divide in Africa. It is important, therefore, that operators and governments know that their network investments will provide long-term utility. 3G networks are fully backwards and forwards compatible and are built from the ground up for mobile services, giving operators an evolutionary path from fixed to mobile services that protect their investments.
Planning for VoIP – eventually, many operators will want to offer voice over IP services. 3G provides effective quality of service (QoS) and will allow operators to begin offering those services today or in the future.
Device economics – with more than 625-million subscribers currently using 3G CDMA services worldwide, economies of scale mean that device manufacturers and operators can offer very low-cost handsets – less than US$100 in most markets. As operators are able to serve more customers at these lower price points, their services costs become less expensive and the price that consumers have to pay for these services becomes progressively lower over time.
This last point cannot be overstated. 3G economies of scale are vast – which leads to greater product availability at lower costs for both terminals and network infrastructure.
Africa’s broadband connectivity challenges are not entirely technical and financial. Even though 3G technologies are available for both fixed and mobile use, they are often constrained by licence limitations. Flexibility in licensing would enable the continent to reap the full advantages of 3G. With the cooperation of governments, operators and technology providers, wireless broadband can play a key role in expanding the availability of broadband services across Africa and narrowing the digital divide.