In the run-up to Huawei’s Mobile Broadband Forum last month, the infrastructure heavyweight held its 2023 Africa Mobile Broadband Summit.

Bringing together stakeholders from across the mobile sector, it was an opportunity to hear how mobile broadband is impacting operators and end-users across the continent. And, because the impact of mobile broadband in Africa forms a major part of our research, I was proud to have GSMA Intelligence as the official Intelligence Partner of the event.

To be fair, a deep understanding of regional dynamics has always been core to the GSMA Intelligence content agenda. You’ll see that across our data, our Mobile Economy series of reports and our Region in Focus reports, which put regional trends into focus.

But, Africa forms a particularly important part of our coverage because the region itself is so important.

Why? As a mobile-first market, mobile networks are the means by which the vast majority of Africans connect to digital resources. That means, in turn, that the mobile sector has an outsized potential to impact societies, enterprises and end-users in Africa. Of course, doing so means overcoming some well-understood obstacles including mobile broadband device affordability and a significant usage gap (the share of people who are covered by mobile broadband networks, but do not access them).

Market-specific solutions will be required, but with 4G and 5G promising real value over the 2G and 3G networks which dominate the continent, they are fixes that need to be found.

To that end, while GSMA Intelligence was at the event to set this context, the real value was in hearing from operators and stakeholders on the ground.

What did we learn?

Covering the coverage gap
While I mentioned earlier that the usage gap is a significant challenge in Africa, it does not mean we can ignore the coverage gap, the share of people not yet covered by mobile broadband networks.

Globally, 5 per cent of the world’s population is not covered by mobile networks. In Africa, however the figure is substantially higher at 13 per cent.

Bringing mobile broadband to those people will be critical for connecting them into digital economies and societies. Of course, that does not mean it will be easy. But, as detailed by one operator, new technologies and siting solutions can make it viable: working with Huawei, the rollout of 200 RuralStar sites managed to cover 2 million people with an RoI of two years (versus eight to ten for traditional sites).

Adding in sustainable powering to meet net zero targets and ensure stable electricity supply, the rural coverage gap can be solved.

Keeping the usage gap in focus
Across the globe, the mobile broadband usage gap  of 38 per cent dwarfs the coverage gap and that is also the case in Africa, where the figure is 58 per cent.

How, then, to drive the usage of mobile broadband technologies by people who are covered by networks?

Access to affordable devices is an important first step. To that end, device specialist TEM Mobile took to the stage to explain how it is working with operators to enable entry-level 4G smartphones in the $25 to $35 price range and 5G smartphones for about $80. Operators, however were quick to point out a drop and run strategy, one involving delivering coverage and devices, is not sufficient to ensure usage. Instead, it is important to work with local communities to educate them on the benefits of mobile, with a strong team on the ground being critical to getting this message across.

2G/3G versus 4G maturity
GSMA Intelligence data highlights there is plenty of life left in 4G, especially for operators and consumers in Africa.

Operators at the Summit backed this up, hailing the maturity of the LTE device and network infrastructure ecosystems as critical to the technology’s success in the region.

Orange Guinea provided a stellar example. Between Q1 2022 and Q3 2023, the operator’s 4G user penetration increased 15 percentage points and data traffic by 143 per cent.

While the discrepancy between user and data traffic growth might seem shocking, it points to the demand for data and mobile services in the region, along with 4G’s ability to meet it, all of which are revenue opportunities operators. 

2G/3G versus the potential of 5G
LTE maybe meeting data demands in Africa today, but there was a clear recognition 5G is where operators need to be headed.

As in other markets, this is due to the efficiencies 5G can bring in terms of data delivery and the new use cases it can enable.

Operator Omantel’s success at driving FWA services provided a concrete example of a 5G service that had proven successful around the world and could see solid uptake in Africa as well.

While device costs (mobile devices as well as FWA customer premises equipment) represent a challenge to 5G adoption, so too can the pace of technology rollout. We heard, for example, how it took about three years to go from initial 5G trials to initial spectrum auctions in Senegal.

The message? Against the backdrop of new 5G use cases and potentially protracted rollout timing, operators need to actively lobby for spectrum, build their plans and begin their 5G activities sooner, rather than later.

Beyond any specific technology or uptake dynamics, however the biggest takeaway is a simple one: while unique in its demands and challenges, mobile broadband in Africa it not fundamentally different from mobile broadband in any other market.

Yes, customer demands and constraints may be different, but the fundamentals remain. The need to meet customer demands and support them with life-changing capabilities. The need to roll out new network technologies enabling these capabilities, but to do so in a sustainable manner. The need to recognise how mobile broadband can deliver on key societal goals and work to ensure that it does.

Where Africa sets itself apart is that it is a mobile-first market. This means the stakes are particularly high for the success of mobile broadband, but also that the rewards for operators, vendors and end-users in those markets could be enormous.

– Peter Jarich – head, GSMA Intelligence

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.