While it’s frequently punted as the next digital frontier, Africa has already seen spectacular digital development over the past two years, says Angela Wamola, head of Sub-Saharan Africa at the GSM Association (GSMA).
Wamola spoke to ITWeb on the sidelines of this year’s Mobile World Congress.
“Mobile connectivity and mobile money was the lifeline for our citizens,” she said. “We have over 1 200 digital platforms in Africa already.”
Referring to the GSMA’s State of the Industry Report on Mobile Money, Wamola said the number of registered mobile money accounts reached 1.2 billion in 2021.
Of the 300 million active accounts, 50% are in Africa, she pointed out. “We have about 310 live services across the world, and 171 are in Africa. This shows that we already have the ecosystem for the digital economy.
“What we need to do is get our people to become digital citizens, to use the platforms that are already there. I think we are ahead in many aspects; it’s just that we need to contextualise what we call the digital economy.”
2G to 5G development
While some data setsstill show universality of 2G coverage in parts of Africa, Wamola point out GSMA data reveals many of the nations in the region have put their investments into installing 3G and 4G.
This is mostly because 2G is not cost-effective, she stated. “It’s [2G] an old technology. Its contribution to green-house gases would be high and the consumption of power and electricity would also be high.”
According to Wamola, the GSMA’s state of the industry report reveals that 2G as a technology is going down, 3G overtook a long time ago, with 4G set to overtake sometime this year in terms of the number connections.
“The total combined connections of 3G and 4G will be more than about 54%, which shows that many people are beginning to switch-off 2G as a technology where it’s not needed.”
She stated that in urban areas, 2G connections are not needed because most people have upgraded to a 3G or 4G network. “There’s no point in running multiple technologies at the same time; it’s very costly.”
She indicated that 2G may not be completely shut off because it’s still used in some rural parts where the majority of the population might be using 2G-supported devices.
South Africa is one of the few nations in Africa that hasn’t adopted 4G spectrum in 800MHz and 2 600MHz bands yet, and local operators had to resort to re-farming of their existing 2G/3G legacy holdings to assign 4G services.
With the temporary spectrum given to mobile operators by telecoms regulator ICASA in April 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, operators like MTN and Vodacom used the privilege to deploy 5G services.
On 5G technology, the GSMA Sub-Saharan Africa head stated there are two ways of looking at it. As a technology, 5G is a progress. On the other hand, in the way it is consumed by enterprises, businesses or consumers, 5G is an uprising, she stated.
Wamola detailed that stakeholders that want to apply 5G must determine the needs that are being addressed and end-customer that will use 5G.
For policy-makers, and depending on the market, they will be looking at it from the point that there will be a progress from 4G to 5G in number of years.
They see 5G as a natural development that comes with benefits − namely efficiency, climate and ticking a lot of boxes in terms of technology evolution, she said. “It’s not the same as 3G, it’s not the same as 4G – [it’s] better. It ticks many boxes, which makes it an evolution.”
Nevertheless, whether it is a utility for the consumer on the ground at the moment, the answer is definitely no, Wamola illustrated .
She detailed that presently it may be more applicable at enterprise-level; for example, hospitals, the airline industry or even government.
“If the South African government has a plan to turn Johannesburg into a smart city by 2030, this is the technology that enables them to do that because it has all the capabilities of latency, speed that will require them to achieve those objectives.
“The readiness depends on who’s going to be using it. If you are only looking at it from the lens of the consumer, then we’ll have the challenges we’ve had with 3G and 4G deployment.”
She added: “A lot of awareness needs to go out there because traditionally…when people mention 5G in South Africa, it’s the consumer that’s listening. The strategy shouldn’t be to announce this to people but more to start work shopping around government and enterprises − they are the ones who need to know.”
In terms of short-term expectations for Sub-Saharan Africa, Wamola advised countries to revisit their mobile broadband targets for 2030.
“We need to take stock of where we are today, so that we can know whether we are going to meet those targets. It’s time to re-evaluate whether the strategies that are in place are working. Once we evaluate where we are, we can at a regional level, at a country level, and at a sub-regional level know what more needs to be done.
“If we close our eyes and hope for the best and then arrive at 2030, we might have missed an opportunity,” she concluded.