The world of mobile communications is a fast-paced and dynamic one, in many instances leaving the rest of the ICT industry standing as it surges ahead.
In fact, it’s advances in mobile technology and networking that is responsible for much of the industry’s activity over the last couple of years – and it’s showing no signs of abating yet.
South Africa is well ahead of most of the rest of Africa as regards mobile networking coverage, and there’s potential for this to drive increased economic growth and prosperity.
It’s no secret that the cellular phone has been one of the most phenomenal success stories in South Africa, with almost 36-million users having embraced the technology in the little over 12 years that it’s been available.
That’s an astounding 77% penetration – a reach for communications media rivalled only by the ubiquitous radio.
And South Africans account for 19% of all cellular users in Africa, followed by Nigeria at 17%, Algeria and Egypt at 10% each, and Morocco at 8%.
Worldwide, there are about 2,67-billion cellular subscribers, a number that is expected to grow to about 3,7-billion by 2010.
Currently, the cellular phone is still used mainly as a voice platform, with data accounting for only about 7% of operators’ revenues, but this is changing rapidly, a move that is set to drive new growth and impetus for the economy as a whole.
Already, SMS (Short Messaging Service) has become the communication medium of choice for an entire generation of cellular users, with Vodacom alone catering for over 1-billion SMSs per year.
Evidence points to the fact that increased mobile communications have a positive effect on the overall economy; and with cellular telephony now able to provide a platform for broadband connectivity, the implications are tremendous.
A study by the London Business School indicates that an increase of 10 mobile phones per 100 people can lead directly to a 0,6% growth in GDP (gross domestic product).
Already, 99% of South Africa is covered by one or another cellular network, while the number of subscribers argues that a majority of citizens have access to it.
Access to a network and a cellular phone are often the most basic tools required for previously-unemployed people to become economically active.
The many benefits conferred by this simple communication medium include being in touch with the wider world, getting access to information, using the phone itself as the basis of a business, or performing financial transaction using airtime instead of money.
For a self-employed artisan, for example, having a means of communication means he can offer a point of contact for customers without having to have an office or a storefront. We’ve all seen the boards alongside the road advertising various services, with a cellular number as the contact details – this is just one way small entrepreneurs are using cellular communication.
Access to information, and being able to share information, all contribute to making micro-businesses more efficient and effective – and therefore more profitable.
In some instances, the phone itself is the business. Entrepreneurs resell call time, or earn a living as a communication bureau for neighbours, typing and sending SMSs, relaying responses and more. In South Africa, a number of entrepreneurs resell airtime as a business in itself.
And airtime is also being translated into currency in some areas. Increasingly, retailers in remote areas are accepting airtime in payment for goods. In some communities, airtime transactions are taking the place of bank transactions – especially where banking services are not available.
And, while South Africa’s telecommunications costs are among the highest in the world, even poor communities are finding that the benefits of being connected outweigh the costs.
Thomas Makore, CEO of Spescom Telecommunications, is positive about the potential of wireless technology in this country.
He sees parallels with the Internet revolution and mobile telephony in that the real impact of wireless is currently underestimated.
South African businesses are aware of the technology, but many do not understand how the implementation of wireless can actually change the economic landscape of the country.
“Government has stated that it has a strategic objective to halve unemployment by 2015,” says Makore. “The ICT sector is pivotal to the achievement of this goal.
“It is globally acknowledged by organisations like the United Nations and the World Bank that national development and economic growth are inextricably linked to a country’s telecommunications capabilities.”
The deployment of wireless technology will facilitate faster and more affordable telecommunications access for both the business world and the man in the street.
“The key point is that wireless technology has come of age,” says Makore. “It delivers on its promises, is no longer just for the elite users, is quick to deploy and – most importantly – is more cost-effective than deploying new copper-cable infrastructure.
“It includes WiFi, WiMax and high-speed cellular data services. Wireless can be used to allow more people to access the Internet at very affordable rates – it is an enabling technology for people and the overall economy.”
South African ICT companies, like Spescom, have a vital role to play, he adds.
“What is needed now is a collective momentum to drive the realisation of the potential for wireless technology. This includes the fixed-line operators, the mobile operators, ISPs, Icasa – which has a critical role – and government itself.
“The goal is that every person must have access to affordable broadband and the funding to achieve that will come from both private and public sectors.
“Education of the market and consumers is another critical point which needs a joint effort and common will and purpose.
“Nowhere is the potential more obvious than in under-serviced rural areas. Wireless was formerly seen as an elite solution and then one with great market potential in urban areas – just like mobile telephony 10 years ago.
“Consider, however, the massive impact wireless can have on rural society. Millions of people in such areas are part of the formal economy but they have limited access to news, banking services and so on.
“Wireless can change their lives by enabling Internet access and bringing these people into the mainstream economy, for the benefit of all.”