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Africa: Mobile Renaissance?

AfricaFocus Bulletin
May 6, 2004 (040506)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

The number of telephone subscribers in Africa has more than doubled in the last three years. In 2003, Africa had 73 million voice telephone subscribers (22 million fixed and 51 million mobile), up from 35.4 million in 2000 (19.7 million fixed and 15.7 million mobile).

These statistics, provided by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), may or may not herald a "renaissance," as the ITU suggested in a recent press release (see
http://www.itu.int/AFRICA2004/media/renaissance.html). But the rapid growth rates are attracting wide attention from governments, investors, and activists concerned with finding new ways to address the digital solidarity gap.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin includes excerpts from an ITU report and selected articles from Highway Africa News Agency on the ITU-sponsored Africa Telecom 2004 conference, now underway in Cairo. For the official conference website, visit http://www.itu.int/AFRICA2004/ Among other information, the site has a 138-page report with African telecommunication indicators by country.

Another AfricaFocus Bulletin today includes excerpts from the Association for Progressive Communication's Africa ICT Policy Monitor on recent meetings in Nairobi on information and communication technology policy.

Previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on related issues include:
Africa: Internet Creativity Feb. 17, 2004
http://www.africafocus.org/docs04/ict0402.php

Africa: Digital Solidarity Gap, 2 and
Africa: Digital Solidarity Gap, 1 Dec 15, 2003
http://www.africafocus.org/docs03/it0312a.php and http://www.africafocus.org/docs03/it0312b.php

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

African Telecommunication Indicators 2004

(138 pages; 2.5 M)
http://www.itu.int/AFRICA2004/media/Indicators2004.pdf

[excerpted from pages 7-9]

The mobile telecommunication sector has to qualify as one of Africa's success stories. In 2003 alone, over 13 million new mobile subscribers were added on the continent, a figure equivalent to the total number of telephone (fixed and mobile) subscribers in 1995. Africa's mobile market has been the fastest growing of any region over the last five years. The total number of mobile subscribers at the end of 2003 was just short of 52 million and mobile penetration stood at 6.2 per 100 inhabitants, twice the fixed rate. The African mobile communications sector is also performing well financially. In 2003 it broke the US$ ten billion barrier in revenues with profits estimated at over US$ one billion. This wealth has spread to other stakeholders such as governments, who have collected over US$ four billion in license fees, and to equipment manufacturers, who have earned over US$ five billion in contracts in Africa since 2000.

Mobile has been critical for enhancing access to telecommunications in Africa where fixed lines are limited. In Nigeria, Africa's most populated country, for example, mobile telephony has increased total telephone penetration from 0.5 to 3.3 per cent in just three years. The number of mobile subscribers passed the number of fixed lines in Africa in 2001. By 2003 almost 70 per cent of all African telephone subscribers used mobile; the figure was even higher in Sub-Sahara, where three out of four telephone subscribers use a mobile. This is the highest ratio of mobile to total telephone subscribers of any region in the world.

Data on the number of African households with a mobile phone is sketchy but for those countries that compile this statistic, the results are impressive. In South Africa, 32 per cent of households have a mobile compared to only 24 per cent for fixed (Figure 1.2, left). In Morocco, the corresponding figures are 31 and 19 per cent. Analysis also show that mobile has been particularly beneficial in providing access to underserved areas. In Moroccan rural households, mobile phones outnumber fixed by six to one. Thus for most Africans mobile is the only form of telephone communications they know and may ever know.

The African mobile market is different in other ways too. Africa has ended up as the world's most GSM-oriented market outside Europe where that technology was mandated. Africa is also the most pre-paid market in the world. At the same time, the continent leads in a couple of not so desirable categories. Overall mobile penetration is the lowest of any region at six per cent in 2003 compared to the global figure of 22. The percentage of the African population within range of a mobile signal is estimated at only 60 per cent, the lowest in the world. At the end of 2003 less than half the population in Sub-Saharan Africa was covered by a mobile signal.


Africa Telecoms Faces New Connection Challenge

Highway Africa News Agency (Grahamstown)

http://www.highwayafrica.org.za/hana/

See also:
http://www.sabcnews.com/features/africa_telecom_2004 http://listserv.ru.ac.za/mailman/listinfo/highwayafricanews-l

May 1, 2004

By Guy Berger Cairo

Egypt's hieroglyphics are among Africa's oldest communications, and it is fitting that Cairo is the setting of a landmark event about 21st century ways of communicating on the continent.

But the Africa-wide summit convened by UN agency, the International Telecoms Union (ITU), also needs to give impetus to a lot more growth - including to Internet access.

There is much for the expected 10 000 participants to party about in Cairo. New technology and falling costs have seen extraordinary growth in telephony in Africa, and more is to come. In mobile connections, which are now double those of fixed lines, there are almost 52 million cellphones around the continent.

Says ITU official, Michael Minges: "Mobile technology is the Information Society in Africa." Yet, there is also a long way to go to reach the 820 million inhabitants of the continent - and to reach even the majority who do have telephone connections but no internet access.

Telecom connections across the continent are vital for people talking to each other, but real participation in the Information Society means they also need access to follow-on services such as Internet email and the world wide web - and to high-quality access at that.

The ITU says that though the number of Internet users in Africa rose by almost a third between 2002 and 2003, the bigger picture is that this means there is now just one person in 50 on the continent who is "wired".

The focus of the Cairo conference will be on growing basic telephone services further, whether through cellular and wireless systems or through cables and copper wires. But the ITU is also reminding delegates that Africa faces an even bigger challenge - the need for fast-speed and "always-on" connections to the Internet.

Known as "broadband", this rich connection capacity is needed, says the ITU, for activities like tele-medicine. In this scenario, doctors in different geographical areas, for example, can to work together in real-time through an inexpensive videoconference discussion of a patient's x-rays.

Around the world, also studies show that when people have access to affordable broadband, they use the Internet a whole lot more - because waiting time is cut, and they can also access audiovisual content without problems.

The "broadband" scenario raises the likelihood that users will be charged more for the amount of data (voice, images, etc.) coming through their connection, rather than the minutes they spend using the link.

That's another way that a development that starts with telecoms triggers models that are different to conventional telephony traditions.

The Cairo summit comes in the context that "broadband" technology has added another level to the digital divide - leaving Africa even further behind than it has been.

The big divide nowadays is not only about access to services for basic telephony, and not only about access to Internet. It is also becoming one about the quality of access to the Internet - between who has broadband access and everyone else.

According to the ITU, Africa has very little broadband, and what does exist is mainly limited to the relatively few places where there are already fixed lines. The result is that citizens of Luxembourg (450 000 people) have more broadband bandwidth available to them, than the 820 million people in Africa put together.

Because of this, there is interest in Cairo in wireless methods of spreading broadband across the continent. The ITU for one believes that because of the limited fixed line infrastructure, "Africa's broadband will be driven by alternative access methods" - and in particular, wireless.

It suggests that wireless broadband services in Africa can and should be allowed to kill several birds with one stone - allow for voice, data and internet services. This contrasts with much of the continent where some companies are allowed to do voice calls only, while others may offer only Internet and are banned from providing voice.

The technology treated by the ITU as the most promising is WiMax, which can carry 70 megabits per second over a radius of 50 km. Satellite services could play a role in linking WiMax points together and into the broader Internet, although they are not a major point of discussion in Cairo.

WiMax Internet access does not necessarily mean mobile use - in the way that a cellphone user can keep a call moving from cell to cell. But there are technologies, known as 2.5 generation, which do allow for a degree of Internet connection, even if not quite at the full broadband level.

A factor limiting the growth of information on the Internet in the First World has been the fact that no one wants to pay for content online.

However, the ITU points out that people are generally used to paying for telephone services, and that this business model could be the basis for viable information businesses making internet content available via cellphones.

In Korea, more than one in three people use their cellphones to get information from the Internet, especially for entertainment advice and even viewing movies. "M-commerce", when a cellphone serves as a creditcard with the bill coming onto your phone account, is also taking off in Korea.

The ITU says that "Africa's robust growth leads that of Latin America and the former Soviet republics, but its jaw-droppingly low penetration rate still leaves a yawning void. Under 6% of all Africans can access telecommunications of any kind."

If Cairo adds momentum to telecoms growth around the continent, and to broadband Internet as part of this, it will turn out to be an important milestone in tackling the digital divide.


Broadband must be Africa's aim

By Guy Berger (Highway Africa News Agency)

May 5, 2004

African governments and regulators need to create an environment conducive to the growth of telecoms and very especially of broadband infrastructure in order to build the Information Society.

This was the message to the Africa Telecom 2004 conference by Karl Socikwa, CEO of South Africa's parastatal Transtel. The company is part of a consortium being licensed to operate South Africa's second national operator.

A broadband action plan was needed for the continent, and each country needed one as well, he said.

Broadband meant, "a connection to each customer with enough bandwidth, and it becomes possible to support a range of multiple, simultaneous combined voice and data services."

He quoted South Africa's Convergence Bill as defining broadband as "a high capacity link between end user and suppliers, capable of supporting full motion, interactive video applications".

Socikwa complained that just as the WSIS final documents failed to include reference to convergence, so South Africa's Convergence Bill only mentioned broadband once. He also noted that at present the highest broadband connection a person could get in South Africa was 512 kilobytes, "a far cry from the multi-megabits per second available elsewhere".

Arguing that the information society could not exist without telecoms and advanced telecoms services, the Transtel CEO said that the time to develop broadband policies was now.

"Just as the growth of mobile is closing the gap between developing and developed countries in basic telephony, so the lack of broadband access is widening a new digital divide."

Broadband was what made convergence a reality, said Socikwa. In turn, convergence referred to the way that any content whether voices or data could be represented in digital form and conveyed on any digital infrastructure.

Socikwa predicted that "broadband penetration will become the measure of access to a wide range of services and information." Tradition low-bandwidth services such as the "plain old telephone" would become obsolete, and multiple services the norm.

His current concern was that "it is regulation, and not simply technology, that makes for convergence "

South Africa's draft convergence law would make for a competitive market that would "blur the lines between all facilities players, fixed and mobile, voice and data."

Socikwa cautioned, however, that if this undermined the conditions of existing licences, or changed the environment overnight, it could discourage investment in the sector.

The speaker, whose own company will have a fixed line license that will combine wired and wireless technologies, was sceptical about mobile telephony providing adequate broadband access. "Despite all the hype about 3G mobile, true broadband access is, and will remain, a fixed network phenomenon."

Broadband was the primary driver of the growth in fixed line telecoms networks, Socikwa said. The most successful broadband operators around the world had taken a mass-market approach, making the service available and affordable to a large percentage of their users.

The Transtel CEO stated that the growth of mobile services was no surprise because "governments have typically allowed competition in mobile services whiles clinging to control of monopoly fixed-line incumbents."

He also noted that "incumbent operators are often the fiercest critics of disruptive technologies and will often choose not to deploy appropriate technologies for fear of eroding their existing revenue and infrastructure base.

"In Africa, we cannot afford the luxury of this approach. Innovation must be rewarded, rather than punished, and competition must not revolve around protection of the incumbent, but of the interests of the user."

Socikwa cited a prediction by a company called Ovum that there would be 1.8million broadband subscribers in South Africa by 2009. "Not only does this number need to be greater, or the date earlier, but it needs to be matched across the continent, if Africa is to have any hope of bridging this new digital divide."

Governments should consider subsidised access to broadband. There should also be incentives to operators since "the long-term national benefits far outweigh the short term infrastructure costs operators will have to bear."

He pointed out that "the need for Internet and other data services requires a level of sophistication only found in literate, or at least computer-literate societies. Bridging this divide takes more than investment in telecommunications, but also in education and other infrastructures."

According to Socikwa, voice over internet protocol (VOIP) was not a miracle technology for Africa, but "simply another tool that operators have that allows them to build cost-effective multi-service networks."

He praised Egypt for a very aggressive promotion of internet.


International funding agenda at Africa telecoms meeting

By Guy Berger (Highway Africa News Agency)

May 3, 2004

World support for Africa getting its people connected to the Information Society is a key theme at the "Advantage Africa" telecoms forum taking place in Cairo this week.

It is a subject that has a range of players competing with each other for the most progressive profile and many of them are prominent at the Egyptian event. But some of the most relevant, such as the USA, are conspicuously absent.

The high level event is convened by UN agency, the International Telecoms Union (ITU). The ITU is on a roll from its high-profile World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva last December.

ITU chief Yoshio Utsumi is clear that his group will want credit for the Cairo occasion. Earlier this year, he warned his organisation that other international groups are "aggressively positioning themselves" to compete with ITU for leadership in promoting the spread of Information Society technology around the world.

While not spelling out who he meant, it is likely that he has in mind the US-supported ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, as well as rival UN agencies like UNESCO and the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Utsumi said that "if ITU is to remain the key international player in bridging the digital divide, as we must, it is crucial that we assume a leadership role in convincing other international organizations to work with us in implementing the WSIS Digital Solidarity Agenda."

The ITU chief's reference is to the decision at the Geneva summit to study models for financing digital development, and report back to the second phase of WSIS in Tunis at the end of 2005.

Accordingly, the Cairo meeting - the first big ITU show since Geneva - is part the international politics of "digital solidarity". Countries like Egypt and Nigeria, and companies like Alcatel, are using the theme to beat their own drums.

The concluding Forum session on Thursday explicitly covers "Digital Solidarity". It is billed as bringing together the hosts of the Geneva WSIS i.e. the Swiss government, along with Senegal which first proposed a "Digital Solidarity Fund", and Tunisia who will host the final summit.

According to the programme, the session "will provide the perfect opportunity to reflect on the achievements of the first phase of WSIS and to plan for a successful implementation of the second phase."

The session also includes speeches by Nigerian ministers and the UN Economic Commission for Africa.

But noticeably absent are representatives of richer countries whose support would be needed if the ITU is to be able to deliver meaningful digital solidarity and secure its status as harbinger of a globally inclusive information society.


AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

AfricaFocus Bulletin can be reached at africafocus@igc.org. Please write to this address to subscribe or unsubscribe to the bulletin, or to suggest material for inclusion. For more information about reposted material, please contact directly the original source mentioned. For a full archive and other resources, see http://www.africafocus.org


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