Mobiles leapfrog the fixed internet in Africa


I’m just back from a quick trip to South Africa, where I am working with a large organization to help develop their long-term corporate strategy. One of the many insights on this fascinating trip was how mobiles are leapfrogging the Internet across Africa. Across the continent, and even in relatively developed South Africa, fixed broadband Internet is difficult to access, expensive, and unreliable. Mobiles have already leapfrogged fixed line telephony across the continent. Research done last year indicated that 85% of small businesses run by black people in South Africa rely solely on mobile phones, and 97% of people in Tanzania have access to a mobile phone compared to 28% for fixed lines. Now phone companies are taking the opportunity to offer mobile data services and internet access. As a GSM-based continent, GPRS and HSDPA (which is very high speed – sometimes called 3.5G) are the core data platforms. MTN, a South African telecoms company with 28 million subscribers across 10 African countries, is already broadly offering data services, with of course little competition from other platforms. Most phones have GPRS capabilities, making data access a core functionality available to mobile users. MTN is using HSDPA to help Internet cafes to set up in townships where fixed Internet access is just a dream. Interestingly, the BBC recently reported that 61% of its international WAP users are in Nigeria, and 19% in South Africa. Of course this partly reflects that WAP is not used greatly in Europe, however it certainly shows that it is a viable technology given internet access being primarily from mobile phones in an emerging economy. Thus in Africa, digital content providers must focus on mobile delivery if they want to access anyone other than a handful of the elite who live in select areas and can afford fixed broadband. Despite its enormous economic and other problems, Africa is becoming a showcase for the potential of the mobile internet.