Where is a mobile phone no longer a mobile phone? Try Africa, where in addition to having all the functionality we expect from modern mobiles, such as cameras and geo-location, handsets are being used in areas as diverse as cash transfers and healthcare. Mobile's profound impact on African communities is a result of it being the first networked device to enter the lives of most users. Banking, healthcare, and other applications have evolved on mobile not because it was particularly suited as a platform, but because there was simply no alternative.
Yet in spite of mobile's shortcomings, the success of these applications has been spectacular, to the extent that many of them are now being exported to more developed markets. And all of this has been achieved with the early-generation mobile technologies available until today. So what could happen now African operators are rolling out fourth-generation (4G) networks based on long-term evolution (LTE) and mobile WiMAX technologies?
Compared to their predecessors, these technologies promise much greater bandwidths and faster connections, making it possible to access the kinds of high-speed broadband feeds needed for applications such as high-definition video, IP telephony, or videoconferencing.
"I think LTE provides Africa with the prospect of accelerating development, particularly ICT," says Donald Browne-Marke, product manager with the wireless broadband specialist InfiNet Wireless. "That will have an impact on economic development."
Browne-Marke points out that modern smartphones are not always within the financial reach of families in Africa, but at least they are not as expensive as computers or laptops. They are also cheaper and easier to distribute and power.
"The issue of affordability is not entirely addressed," he says, "but it goes some way to address the imbalance that there is in the adoption of information technology right across Africa. There does seem to be a higher prospect of uptake right across the continent."
It is expected 4G, buoyed with cheap smartphone sales from schemes such as Apple's newly launched iPhone trade-in program, will open Africa up to western market IT trends such as social networking.
But whereas in Europe or America activity on social networking platforms is predominantly around mundane matters such as your interactions with your friends or your work colleagues, in Africa the focus might be more on e-government, community, or small business-related issues.
Healthcare providers, which already use mobiles in Africa to deliver information and collect epidemiology statistics, could use the superior imaging capabilities of 4G for applications such as remote diagnosis and treatment. And small traders are already using mobile devices to help boost sales. Browne-Marke recounts how, on a recent visit to Africa, he found fishermen taking photos of their catches on the beach so they could secure sales before even getting to the market.
"Being able to transmit voice, data, or video from anywhere has an immense attractiveness to it, particularly for people who have always wanted to do this but have not so far had an opportunity to do so," he confirms.
Adhish Kulkarni, Chief Marketing Officer at Lumata, a telco-oriented mobile marketing company operating in African nations such as Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Egypt, Ghana, Nigeria, and Madagascar notes that 4G poses a couple of challenges for African mobile operators.
One of these is that users have little disposable income, so the ability to recoup 4G rollout costs is limited compared to that in other markets. Another is that African users typically hold a number of subscriber identity modules (SIMs) and switch operators on a regular basis in order to save money. Taking this into account, Kulkarni forecasts African mobile operators could win out by offering cloud services that allow users to store data cost effectively and at the same time tie them into a given provider.
"What will emerge in an African context is not so much about your thousand-euro handset but much more around dongle-based technology that you can plug into a relatively cheap laptop or maybe a low-end Chinese tablet that can work over 4G," he believes.
"I'm not going to keep my files across five different networks. I'm going to keep them in the cloud. And if the operator is controlling that, you get a very sticky customer."
Right now, 4G is being rolled out across Africa and in many cases regulators are still struggling with how to create the best environment for it. There is also a potential problem of different companies adopting different LTE frequency bands and channel bandwidths, which could hamper interoperability. Overcoming backhaul costs and capacity constraints is another issue facing operators. But with new operator deployments being announced almost on a monthly basis, it is clear that Africa is about to be connected in a way its people could never have imagined before. It will be interesting indeed to see what they do with this newfound power.
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