During the Africa MBB Summit 2023, Telecom Review had the opportunity to conduct an exclusive interview with two prominent figures in the telecom sector: Chris Meng, Vice President of Huawei Northern Africa Carrier Business and Peter Jarich, Head of GSMA Intelligence. The discussion revolved around the digital challenges facing Africa, including the digital divide, the digital economy and the role of 5G.
When the question of how to reduce the digital divide in Africa arose, with over 300 million people still lacking internet access, Meng painted a vivid picture of the intricate challenges faced in Africa's pursuit of digital inclusion. He highlighted that the challenge in Africa resides in reaching individuals living in remote and hard-to-access regions where traditional connectivity methods prove either impractical or cost-prohibitive.
"Huawei has tackled this issue head-on with the RuralStar solution, a project that has been in development since 2017. This ingenious solution, compact and roughly the size of a backpack, can be effortlessly installed on wooden or steel poles, presenting an affordable avenue for connecting remote communities."
Through successful collaborations with major African mobile operators, more than 30 countries in Africa have used the Rural Star solution. This achievement extends basic telecommunications services to millions of people residing in rural areas.
Jarich joined the conversation by emphasizing that while achieving broad coverage is undoubtedly a commendable accomplishment, the digital gap remains a formidable challenge. He noted: "It's not just about granting access; it's also about providing incentives and imparting the necessary skills to enable people to become connected. This endeavor entails the implementation of comprehensive training programs and the development of local digital content. Equally crucial is ensuring online access to local languages and content." For Jarich, the highest priority is guaranteeing that people have access to the network itself.
Improving MBB Expansion in Africa
Transitioning to the aspects that boost the expansion of mobile broadband (MBB) in Africa, where it typically falls below 60%, while taking into account the prevalence of feature phones, Meng emphasized the pivotal role played by smartphone affordability. He noted the gradual shift in Africa, where feature phones, still widely used for voice calls, are being gradually complemented by more cost-effective smartphones. Multiple mobile operators have joined forces with smartphone original design manufacturers (ODMs) to reduce smartphone prices and enhance access to digital services.
"The projected surge in mobile data traffic, driven by the expansion of 4G networks, the affordability of smartphones, and the proliferation of video streaming, will expedite the adoption of Mobile Broadband (MBB). Declining device costs and a burgeoning young population are fueling the swift expansion of MBB, transforming the way people communicate, live, and work."
Jarich agreed on underscoring the significance of feature phones in this evolving landscape.
"Smart feature phones possess a diverse array of functionalities and must be made accessible to the appropriate audience. Ensuring that services are priced reasonably, following the guidelines established by the ITU, is of paramount importance. Striking the right equilibrium between affordability and features is imperative. We must not compromise on essential features in our quest for cost reduction."
Jarich went further to argue that the entire ecosystem, encompassing governments, wields a substantial influence in ensuring affordable access. He pointed out that excessive taxes on these devices could potentially obstruct accessibility and affordability for the general populace.
The Current State of 5G in Africa
The commercial utilization of 5G technology has already taken root on a global scale, and the imminent arrival of 5G in North Africa was a central point of discussion during this interview.
Meng emphasized that the worldwide progression of 5G has, quite remarkably, exceeded all expectations over the past four years. Over 260+ operators have already unleashed 5G services, ushering in over a billion commercial users.
"In Africa, the journey towards 5G will be a gradual process, with 4G and 5G harmoniously coexisting for a certain transitional period in North Africa. The recent 5G launch in Ethiopia during Q3 of this year provides a promising glimpse into the future. Notably, some North African countries, such as Egypt, Tunisia, have already cultivated mature 4G networks and markets. This positions them as prime candidates for a rapid embrace of 5G technology."
Meng pointed out that a multitude of other countries are still at the nascent stages of 4G development, with penetration rates languishing below the 20% mark. In his view, for these markets, the prudent course of action would be to prioritize the development of 4G networks.
Shifting the spotlight to North Africa, Jarich underscored a pivotal factor: the extent of smartphone penetration. He explained the fact that elevated smartphone adoption rates signify a population that comprehends the significance of connectivity and is armed with the essential devices to harness the potential of emerging technologies such as 5G.
Jarich noted, "In North Africa, while smartphone penetration holds relatively high ground, it converges with the global average. This positioning of the entire continent, with North Africa at the forefront, positions us favorably to seize the opportunities that will undoubtedly unfold once 5G becomes available on these networks. This readiness sets the stage for a triumphant journey into the realm of 5G."