Diego Gutierrez, the Chief Officer of International Markets at Vodacom Group talks about 4G in Africa and the challenges that come with enabling it.
Digital transformation in all economic sectors and the increasingly vital role of digital technology in our daily lives is driving the advancements in 4G coverage expansion in Africa. Notably, the broadband coverage gap reduced from 51% to 19% from 2014 to 2020 in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the GSMA’s State of Mobile Internet Connectivity Report. Despite this considerable progress, only 28% of the region’s population are using mobile internet, with many remaining digitally disconnected even though they are covered by 4G.
4G improves on 3G and 2G technologies, providing faster, reliable and secure online access to essential services, enabling financial inclusion and promoting job creation. Access to 4G can transform lives, reduce poverty and support growth in areas such as health, agriculture, education and commerce. To achieve the Sustainable Development Goal of universal broadband access, another billion people in Africa need to come online by 2030. While robust 4G infrastructure is critical in providing quality connectivity, these new users will not be able to benefit fully from digital services unless this coverage is utilised.
Driving demand for 4G
The GSMA reports that one of the barriers to using broadband connectivity is a lack of digital literacy and skills. To help grow the demand, and therefore usage of 4G services across Africa, investment in infrastructure needs to be complemented by investment in digital skills training so citizens can access 4G effectively.
Understanding the opportunities of broadband connectivity, and how to leverage them, should start from early childhood and continue to adult education, encompassing learners, teachers, parents and communities. This requires partnerships between governments, education sectors and information and communication technology industries. One such initiative that is accelerating digital skills development is Vodacom’s partnership with the Ministry of Education in the DRC to introduce the zero-rated VodaEduc. The e-learning platform offers free digital lessons to more than 113 000 learners and teachers on their mobile devices and laptops.
Investing in digital skills training and financing for digital start-ups and small to medium enterprises (SMEs) on the continent can assist in building a local digital ecosystem. In Tanzania, Vodacom collaborated with selected SMEs to provide them with digital skills training and connectivity to help them use digital platforms to boost profitability. Not only can this type of partnership drive a demand for 4G services but it contributes to sustainable economic growth for the continent.
Lowering the cost to connect
Key to enabling universal 4G access is addressing the affordability of 4G-enabled devices. The Alliance for Affordable Internet estimates that a smartphone in Africa could cost almost 63% of the average monthly income of citizens. This high price, combined with the expense of purchasing data plans, hampers 4G usage on the continent.
At Vodacom, we have worked together with device manufacturers, chipset and component suppliers, and over the top (OTT) service providers, such as Google and Facebook, to introduce affordable entry smartphones to our markets. In 2014, we launched the low-cost Vodacom Kicka in South Africa, Lesotho and Mozambique, which has increased smartphone penetration to 60% in those countries, the highest across the African continent.
Handset financing can also help to increase access to 4G devices in Africa. This enables mid- and low-income earners to buy a smartphone through small, manageable payments spread over an extended period. By adding subsidies and network lock, as well as zero-rated content, there are significant opportunities to drive down the cost to communicate while accelerating digital inclusion.
Some African countries have proposed fairer device taxation, a contributing factor to their high price on the continent. While removing VAT can be seen as loss in revenue for governments, the broader gains in socio-economic development through citizens’ increased access to digital technology in the long term needs to be recognised.
Overcoming the challenges to achieving universal affordable and good quality broadband connectivity across Africa requires multilevel partner commitment. Vodacom is proud to support Vodafone’s recent pledge to the International Telecommunication Union’s Partner2Connect platform, which is set to strengthen global digital cooperation and support government, business, civil society, and academic sectors to drive digital transformation all over the world.
While investing in expanding 4G coverage in our markets continues to remain a key focus of ours as a pan-African technology company, we need to address the usage gap if we are to close the digital divide and unlock our continent’s socio-economic potential. This means taking a more holistic, collaborative approach to advance the adoption and use of 4G. Only then can we ensure that everyone will have the opportunity to participate in the connected world now and in the future.