[Column] Dejan Kastelic: Achieving mobile-enabled digital inclusion in Africa with 4G technology
Mobile phone technology will play a key role in building an inclusive, sustainable Africa of the future. Wireless next generation technology can overcome the cost barriers and limitations of fixed broadband to provide ubiquitous connectivity and bridge the digital divide that exists on this vast continent.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 77% of Africa’s urban areas are now covered by Fourth Generation (4G) mobile communications technology, which offers supercharged wireless speeds and superior user experiences when compared to older 2G and 3G mobile communications technologies.
These improvements can be attributed to 4G’s high spectral efficiency, which enables it to provide between 4 and 15 times the data speeds supported by 3G and 2G respectively, and support for high-definition (HD) voice services using Voice over LTE (VoLTE) technology. Harnessing this potential and the data economy it creates can help in achieving the Sustainable Development goals set by the United Nations and address some of Africa’s pressing concerns such as social inequalities.
Despite the progress made in connecting Africa’s urban population, there remain many under-served areas, which are at risk of being left behind. If we are to accelerate digital transformation, there is an urgent need to expand 4G coverage and accelerate the adoption of smartphones to improve peoples’ access to the benefits of the digital world.
The legacy of 2G
A key challenge to this progress is the legacy 2G mobile communication network. Almost 30 years old and designed for voice applications and text messaging, this technology offers none of the digital capabilities of its successors.
In addition, 2G uses spectrum that could be redeployed for more efficient and newer 4G mobile technologies that provide higher quality and more reliable services.
This would also reduce the requirement to invest in additional base stations to manage the continuous growth in data traffic – which has been significantly amplified by the current pandemic. This reduction in overall CAPEX spend helps to mitigate the cost of mobile data, and in the long-term promotes greater digital inclusion.
For spectrum-constrained environments, mobile operators can optimise and re-farm existing 2G spectrum to expand 4G mobile broadband coverage.
Historically, spectrum re-farming was a challenging exercise, as it required mobile operators to manually identify exactly how much spectrum could be reallocated to newer technologies (such as 4G) without radically degrading the quality of experience of subscribers using legacy technologies (such as 2G).
DSS technologies allow mobile operators to identify blocks of spectrum for re-farming, and leave their base stations to dynamically select how much of that spectrum is allocated to legacy or modern mobile communications technologies based on the compatibility of mobile devices within range.
2G technology is also heavily utilised by machine to machine (M2M) and Internet of Things (IoT) devices across the continent. At present there are also millions of utility meters, vehicle trackers, and other such devices that are solely reliant on 2G mobile communications.
For this reason, 2G will remain a part of the mobile communications ecosystem in Africa for the foreseeable future, however Vodacom is working with its M2M and IoT customers to support the adoption of more efficient, future-proof communications technologies.
These technologies, such as NB-IoT and LTE-M, can be deployed alongside modern 4G technologies (often using the same spectrum), and are capable of supporting higher speeds and more reliable communications than 2G.
Increasing the uptake of smartphones
Increased mobile coverage is just one part of the battle to bridge the digital divide. Even with all the 4G infrastructure currently deployed, low-income consumers will be unable to adopt such technologies if they cannot afford 4G-capable smart devices. For Africa to reap the dividends of digital technology, we need to reduce the cost of entry-level 4G-enabled devices so that everyone, no matter their economic circumstances, can benefit from this mobile technology.
This is not only reliant on measures taken by manufacturers and network operators, but also necessitates collaboration with policymakers to take full effect. In South Africa, more than 4 million of Vodacom’s 4G-enabled, low-cost branded smart devices are sold every year.
There is also a need for regulatory intervention to stem the influx of cheaply manufactured 2G devices that are entering the continent from abroad.
Sales of these legacy devices are largely outside the control of mobile network operators, and are made directly to consumers (often at a high margin) by independent retail chains who import them from international suppliers. This flood of 2G devices to the market is stifling the potential of digital inclusivity.
Examples of regulatory intervention to make 4G handsets more affordable could include governments deeming them essential goods, which are instrumental for the digital development of countries, and the elimination of import duties and VAT taxes on entry-level 4G devices below 50 USD. These actions would enable more aggressive price points, thereby promoting increased digital inclusion.
For digital technologies to benefit everyone, and to ensure the integration of more advanced technologies on the continent in the future, we need to work together as industry, government and other stakeholders. By connecting millions of people to affordable digital products and services, extending next generation network coverage and breaking down barriers to access to the digital world, we can drive greater inclusion for all.