In many developing regions, including large parts of Africa, mobile connectivity is more prevalent than electricity or running water. According to the GSMA Mobile Economy sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) report, in the last five years SSA has been the fastest growing in terms of both unique subscribers and connections.
The region is also seeing rapid technology migration to high-speed networks, helped not only by the growing range of lower-cost devices, but also ongoing network developments by operators. Infrastructure and network upgrades are key to building and maintaining a thriving mobile ecosystem on the continent.
Globally, mobile technology has emerged as a primary engine of economic growth, and African industries and economies stand to benefit.
The same GSMA report says that SSA leads the rest of the world in the number of active mobile money deployments – over 130 services in 38 markets were live as of September 2014, aimed primarily at unbanked populations.
Mobile money services are a clear success story for the mobile industry, with mobile money bringing formal financial services to millions of previously unbanked citizens across the region, promoting financial inclusion and therefore driving economic growth that benefits all industries. Increasingly, these services are evolving beyond mere person-to-person transfer services, to fully-fledged banking alternatives.
M-PESA, launched by Safaricom in Kenya, was the first mobile money service to make its mark, reaching 15 million users in its first five years. Used by more than two thirds of the country’s population, as much as 25 percent of the country’s GDP flowing between its users.
Airtel, Etisalat, MTN and Millicom all have mobile money offerings. Airtel offers mobile money services across much of its African footprint through a partnership with EcoBank. MTN had just over 22 million mobile money subscribers at the end of 2014, a year-on-year increase of 50%, indicating how mobile has changed not only how people interact with their devices but also the banking industry.
Mobile health care
In its report, GSMA also highlights that mobile is already facilitating the delivery of basic health services to the underprivileged by successfully addressing challenges such as reducing maternal and infant mortality rates, combatting infectious diseases, creating awareness of HIV and delivering nutritional health and treatment for a variety of health conditions remotely.
Also in Nigeria, Qualcomm Wireless Reach has partnered with the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (part of the Ministry of Health) and others to implement CliniPAK360, a program aimed to reduce maternal and child mortality rates in the African country that has the highest rates of these instances. This mHealth intervention frontline health care workers with mobile devices to capture, analyse, and diagnose clinical conditions that lead to maternal and/or infant mortality.
Project stakeholders have continued growing these efforts such that CliniPAK360-enabled tablets have been provided to health workers in 51, mostly rural, Primary Health Centers in four States in Nigeria. With this established infrastructure in place, the wireless network created by the CliniPAK360 project was used as a rapid response tool with the launch of an Ebola Disease Outbreak Preparedness and Surveillance Project. It was also the first Pre/Post empirical evaluation of a mHealth intervention in West Africa aimed to improve frontline health workers knowledge and attitude towards Ebola. This effort highlights the use of tablets for instantaneous communication with facilities, training and capacity building of health workers and disease surveillance and response. This educational initiative shifted front line health worker knowledge and attitudes towards the Ebola Virus disease by statistically significant margins.
In South Africa, where access to relevant health literature and broadband Internet access is limited, Qualcomm Wireless Reach worked with the Department of Health, and others, to equip medical staff in the Eastern Cape with 3G wireless technology and a Mobile Health Information System (MHIS). An Internet-capable, commercially available smartphone pre-loaded with a locally relevant, reliable clinical library, were the key component to this collaboration which enabled nurses and doctors to overcome access-to information challenges and provide better care to their patients. This effort has now empowered over 20,000 frontline health workers to achieve better accuracy, saving time and money in their day to day interactions with patients all over South Africa.
By end of 2016, the GSMA Pan-African mHealth Initiative aims to have commercially sustainable mHealth services which contribute meaningfully to national health objectives in nutrition, as well as maternal and child health operational in 10 African countries.
Carlo Ratti, director of the Senseable City Lab project at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology quoted in a recent ‘Cities in Africa’ report “Technology already available in Africa, such as mobile telecommunications, could be integrated into the process of urbanisation in the region.”
Social networks and purpose-built applications can address challenges in rapidly urbanising cities related to traffic systems, water management, carbon emissions and other “smart city” initiatives that improve citizens’ quality of life, make public services more efficient, generate new sources of revenue and fuel economic growth.
LTE is one means of driving growth throughout the wireless ecosystem by significantly improving the mobile broadband experience. According to the GSMA Mobile Economy 2015 report, by the end of the decade developed countries are expected to reach full 4G coverage (defined as reaching 95 percent of the population), while LTE networks in developing countries will reach 60 percent of their populations by 2020. It is inevitable that increased migration to LTE connections will be a feature of the coming years, with close to one quarter of connections forecast to be 4G by 2020.
Increasingly, network operators are realising that Africa’s low rate of fixed-broadband penetration presents a particular opportunity to use LTE to provide these services on the continent. LTE will bring greater network capacity and efficiency, as well as greater network speeds that translate into better user experiences. Only then can and will the full force of the mobile ecosystem in Africa be unlocked.
Market-leading network operators like South Africa’s Vodacom, working with Qualcomm, are introducing white-labelled LTE-enabled mobile devices like the Vodacom Smart 4 Turbo, putting the power of low-cost but relatively high-performance mobile connectivity in the hands of many who couldn’t afford it before. Already, LTE has reached 25% of the South African population, and Qualcomm anticipates that reach increasing significantly from 2016 onwards.
Governments play a key role in enabling development of mobile broadband (MBB). In particular spectrum availability is key to improving connectivity and user experience. Over the past few years African policy makers and regulators have focused efforts on the release of additional low-band spectrum for mobile. Accelerating the release of this spectrum, soon after the completion of ongoing migration of analogue TV to digital platforms is vital for LTE deployment in rural and underserved regions.
In addition, government and regulators can promote the development and uptake of MBB services through the adoption of enabling policies, and through integration of mobile technologies and applications into government systems and services leading to both urban development and renewal for African cities.
By James Munn, Vice President of Business Development, South Africa, Qualcomm