Mobile data penetration soars in Africa

Subscribers of mobile telephony across the world reached 7.4 billion in November last year, a five per cent increase over the 7.1 billion recorded in 2014. The figure included 87 million new subscribers.

Smartphone subscriptions were particularly impressive in 2015 as the 10 per cent growth over the 2.6 billion subscribers in 2014 gave credence to projections that the world is moving into an area where data and broadband will shape everything.

The smartphone subscriptions are projected to rise to 6.4 billion in 2021, from the 3.4 billion recorded in November 2015. These subscriptions are already driving mobile broadband adoption, which increased from 2.9 billion subscribers to 3.6 billion within the period under review.

According to the Mobility Report, a survey conducted each year by telecom technology provider Ericsson, smartphone subscriptions will increase by a cumulative average growth rate of 50 per cent and a 35 per cent CAGR in tablets as well as other smart devices.

This will underlie the exponential increase in data use that the world will see by 2021 in the next five years. According to the report, data use will also rise, for smartphones by a cumulative 35 per cent average growth rate to 8.5 gigabytes per smartphone, and that of tablets will rise by 25 per cent to 9.7GB per month.

In all, data use by all mobile devices will increase by 45 per cent CAGR by 2021.

By the close of this year, Mobility Report projects the number of smartphone subscriptions will surpass those for basic phones. Smartphones make up the majority of mobile broadband devices today and subscriptions are expected to almost double by 2021.

As part of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the 139-member countries of the United Nations agreed on a universal access to the Internet which is affordable and open, especially for closing the gap in least developed countries.

This is due to greater affordability in developing markets such as Asia Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. It is projected that 85 per cent of all subscriptions will be for mobile broadband by the end of 2021.

Mobile broadband subscriptions will reach 7.7 billion globally by 2021. They account for an overwhelming share of all broadband subscriptions. Mobile broadband will complement fixed broadband in some segments and will be the dominant mode of access in others.

Sub-Saharan Africans 

With a population of 830 million, about 80 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africans (SSA) were expected to own mobile phones by the close of last year. This is a marked improvement over the 50 per cent penetration five years ago.

The Ericsson Mobility Report estimates that by 2021, mobile subscription penetration in SSA could reach 100 per cent in the region. General mobile subscriptions in the region stood at 690 million at the end of November 2015, but this is expected to rise to 1.02 billion by 2021.

Ghana and South Africa have already gone past the 100 per cent subscription mark. Ghana’s mobile subscriptions currently stand at 125.6 per cent as of November 2015, according to the National Communications Authority (NCA). The NCA gives the mobile data penetration rate as 65.74 for the month of December 2015.

Smartphones define future 

Smartphone subscriptions, which stood at 170 million in November 2015, will rise at an average cumulative growth rate of 25 per cent to reach 690 million by 2021.

Similarly, data traffic per active smartphone, which stands at 0.8 gigabytes per month, is projected to hit 4GB per month by 2021, an average cumulate growth rate of 30 per cent.

These developments are powered by rising urbanisation levels in the region, as well as growing investment in rural network coverage by mobile operators will drive this growth. MTN Ghana, for instance has earmarked US$163.5 million to expand infrastructure and improve network quality. The capital expand includes US$18 million for expansion to rural areas.

Also, the region has been experiencing strong economic growth, driven by improved political stability, a global commodity boom and greater regional integration. The World Bank has projected economic growth in the region to average 4.4 per cent until 2018.

Capitalising on the continent’s large unconnected population, operators are aggressively pursuing growth in mobile broadband. Their effort is supported by the proliferation of lower cost devices and evolving regulatory policies.

In addition to this, service providers have increased their focus on extending offerings around increasing mobile financial inclusion and media delivery. Growing smartphone ownership and a lack of fixed broadband availability has resulted in mobile broadband being the most common way to connect to the Internet. Eighty-three per cent of Nigerian mobile phone subscribers rely solely on this channel.

3G and 4G coverage

In 2014, population coverage of WCMDA/HSPA networks in Sub-Saharan Africa was just above 25 per cent, compared to global population coverage of around 65 per cent, the report notes. However, “in 2021, WCDMA/HSPA coverage is expected to triple to approximately 75 per cent, while long-term evolution (LTE) will cover around half of the population,” the Ericsson report stated.

Coverage of GSM networks – which enable the provision of basic mobile telephony services such as voice, SMS and low-speed data – is high at around 70 per cent. The implication is that even with a lack of access to mobile broadband, the population is still able to access a variety of services, a major example being SIM-based mobile financial services.

Outlook – 5G LTE Evolve

As the cellular telecommunication industry deploys fourth generation (4G) Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology which provides faster broadband access, technology developers are already talking about the fifth generation modules which would allow every item to be connected to the Internet. The emerging terminology is therefore known as the Internet of Things (IoT). 

Ericsson, which has been behind telecommunication technology provisions across the world, expects 5G subscription uptake to be faster than for 4G. 

“5G consists of a new radio access (NX), an evolved LTE access and an enhanced core network. It offers a wider range of services and will open up new industries and verticals,” the report stated.

5G networks, based on standards that will meet ITU IMT-2020 requirements, are expected to be deployed commercially in 2020. Pre-standard, pre-commercial networks are expected to be launched earlier in selected markets. 

5G subscriptions will provide enhancements in mobile broadband services, as well as enable a wider range of use cases, e.g. for the Internet of Things (IoT).

In 2021, South Korea, Japan, China and the US are expected to have the fastest uptake of 5G subscriptions.

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