Reducing the cost of the mobile internet in Africa

Clare Hopping

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Access to the internet is no longer a luxury – it is a utility and a right. It’s something that every man, woman and child should have reasonable access to, but Africans are in danger of being left out of our interconnected world due to the high cost of mobile data.

It has been estimated that the average African person must stump up around 15 per cent of their monthly income for a measly 500MB of data, which isn’t even enough to stream an hour of content from the internet’s largest and most popular streaming services.

In comparison, the average European, who also has greater access to fixed-line broadband services, pays less than 1 per cent of their monthly income for the same.

With mobile data penetration at only 16 per cent, according to the Alliance for Affordable Internet’s (A4AI) 2017 report, and only one in four Africans online, there remains a lot of work to bring the web to everyone. However, with forward thinking, cooperation and a healthy dose of ingenuity, it is achievable.

Governmental intervention

Sensible and transparent government policy is the first consideration in the fight to drive down mobile data costs.

Independent regulation is a must, and the formation of clear goals and timing should be deemed critical. For too long, countries have shuffled along without any clear targets, and this lackadaisical approach has hamstrung mobile broadband rollout.

Moderating the way telcos charge for mobile data has, in the past, caused prices to remain high, but Nigeria’s decision to remove its ‘data floor price’ back in 2015 showed that healthy competition between carriers can drive prices down – and competition between submarine cable companies has reportedly had a positive knock-on effect on prices too.

Government action in countries like Mozambique and Botswana to streamline licensing and discourage anti-competitive behaviours has proven similarly fruitful, according to A4AI, setting a helpful precedent for up-and-coming countries in the region.

Industry’s role

Decision-makers must look to implement considered spectrum policy, ensuring that more spectrum is released in a timely manner to avoid fragmentation and further encourage competition. Further delaying the use of spectrum for mobile broadband has also been shown to cost the economy dearly.

The World Radiocommunication Conference will take place in 2019, and African governments must be ready to deal with the launch of 5G. As such, overcoming the remaining issues of 3G and 4G should be a priority before more challenges are heaped on top of them.

Working to utilise more low-frequency spectrum could also extend coverage across countries, improving service with relatively little effort.

A collaborative approach is needed

Action by governments should go further, however. Subsidies and initiatives should be considered, targeting those most affected – women, those on low incomes and young people – to ensure they’re brought in line with the rest of the world.

Indeed there is some argument for offering entirely free services to many of the poorest, given the positive impact a connected society can have on other, potentially more costly aspects of government infrastructure, such as medical care and education, and in turn could deliver life-altering benefits to those who live in rural areas.

Other solutions are already underway to improve access to mobile data, including both passive and active infrastructure sharing, which help direct investment towards underserved areas and can also significantly reduce the costs associated with setting up new cell sites.

More ingenious solutions, such as the use of drones and balloons, are helping provide faster, more stable mobile data connections in some regions. However, the high cost of equipment and the skills required to manage such endeavours mean they are unlikely to ever be considered for a major role in tackling the greater problems at hand.

So-called zero-rating promotions by providers are also bringing connected services to many who couldn’t previously afford them. The offers, which have caused unrest among net-neutrality advocates, give users unlimited access to popular, data-intensive streaming services without them accruing any data charges or using up their allowances.

Information and digital literacy programmes will also need to be expanded if countries wish to truly benefit from their newly connected citizens. And the ability to locate, evaluate and effectively use information in one of Africa’s many languages will be key to leveraging the growth of fast, reliable mobile broadband.