Mike Nxele of World Mobile and Richard Cockle from GSMA Foundry Tackle Sub-Saharan Africa’s Digital Divide

Authors discuss progress, challenges, and innovative solutions for digital connectivity in Sub-Saharan Africa, urging collaboration.

Mike Nxele, VP of Regulatory Affairs at World Mobile and Richard Cockle, Global Head of GSMA Foundry talk about the importance of innovation and community collaboration to tackle Sub Saharan Africa’s digital divide.

When it comes to mobile connectivity, Sub Saharan Africa has seen progress over the past year. A quarter of the population are now using mobile internet, with almost 30 million new mobile internet users coming online in 2022. And, more than half of the world’s 4G network expansion took place in Sub-Saharan Africa last year. 

This progress is testament to the continuing investment mobile operators and governments are making in the region. 

However, while a the coverage gap – those living in areas without mobile broadband coverage – is now only an issue for 5% of the world’s population, the fact remains that almost 400 million people worldwide still don’t have mobile internet coverage. This is an even bigger issue in Sub Saharan Africa, where nearly half of the world’s unconnected people (180 million) live and work.

This lack of connectivity has a significant impact on access to critical services, such as healthcare, education, financial inclusion, ecommerce as well as other economic opportunities. Without access, millions of people continue to be left out of the global digital economy. 

Industry, regulators, and local communities as a whole need to unite and work together to tackle these challenges and build out connectivity infrastructure.

While the GSMA’s new The State of Mobile Internet Connectivity report shows that we’re connecting more people to the internet than ever before, there are stark contrast between regions. Only a quarter of the Sub-Saharan Africa population are using mobile internet. 

There are also large disparities across Africa. For example, mobile internet adoption ranged from 33% in Southern Africa to 17% in Central Africa. 

The challenge we’re facing can be broken down into two key areas: what we call the “coverage gap” and “usage gap”. The coverage gap means those who live in an area not covered by a mobile broadband network. In Sub Saharan Africa this equates to 15% of the population, compared to 5% of people globally. A large part of the problem comes from the fact that these “uncovered communities” are predominantly in rural, poor and sparsely populated areas, that are the most challenging to reach.

But, there’s also an even bigger number of people affected by the usage gap: these are the people who live within the footprint of a mobile broadband network but, for a number of reasons, do not use mobile internet services. In Sub Saharan Africa that represents an additional 59% of the population, or 680 million people. Meaning only a quarter of people are accessing mobile internet.

The main factors behind the usage gap are handset and network access affordability issues, literacy and a lack of digital skills.

Efforts have been made to break down the barriers to the usage gap in recent years recognising its transformative potential for societies and digital inclusion. But, while there have been notable achievements and mobile internet adoption continues to grow, there are signs that progress is slowing and that increased action needed to ensure everybody can access mobile internet.

This is also the case with actual connectivity, where the geographical and financial obstacles we face have held us back from connecting the remaining 15% of Sub Saharan Africa. It’s clear that a greater collaborative effort across the board, including government, policymakers and the mobile ecosystem, is needed to break the barriers to the digital divide. 

Innovative thinking and exploring new business models will be key to this. It’s something that World Mobile, supported by the innovation accelerator GSMA Foundry, have been taking seriously. We’re also working with local governments and communities.

Earlier this month, we launched Africa’s first commercial telecommunications aerostat in Mozambique, aimed at connecting rural areas affordably and sustainably. The launch, which took place near the rural village of Massingir, commences several weeks of flight operations. Data and insight gathered will form the basis for World Mobile to deploy additional commercial aerostats across Mozambique, Africa, and other under-connected regions around the world. 

The aerostat is deployed roughly 300 meters into the air and tethered to the ground, providing last-mile connectivity. This means that World Mobile customers can directly connect to using internet-connected devices akin to a traditional cell tower. The aerostats offer standard cellular connectivity covering a radius of up to 130 kilometers, overcoming the challenges of terrain, infrastructure, and cost that often hinder the expansion of mobile networks. 

World Mobile’s network and business model takes a different approach to existing operators. Built on the blockchain, our technology helps create a distributed sharing economy that taps into the trillion-dollar global telecom market. Individuals and business owners in Africa and beyond, can operate nodes on the network and bring their communities online while earning revenue.

This approach helps to overcome one of the critical barriers to closing the usage gap, affordability. With the cost and maintenance of network infrastructure being decentralised, the reduced operational expenditure can be passed on to the end user in terms of lower price connections. 

Another way in which we are seeking to close the usage gap is through our partnership with educational institutions. When we first set out to bring connectivity to the remote areas of Zanzibar, we realised we needed to find tall structures to boost the reach of our network signal. As we searched for suitable candidates, we discovered that schools were among the best places to install our AirNodes. 

As we set to launch commercial connectivity in Zanzibar, our network has been able to connect schools that previously did not have internet access. The positive impact of this deployment on the educational process and empowerment of students, particularly girls, has been noteworthy.

Our goal is to connect the unconnected and close the digital divide in Africa. We believe that everyone has the right to access the opportunities that mobile internet can offer. Through innovation and collaboration and by using aerostats and a blockchain-based sharing economy, we believe it’s possible to provide low-cost, high-quality, and community-owned connectivity to millions of people.

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