By Mark Davison at Mobile 360 Africa, Cape Town – Connecting the 1-billion people of Africa to the Internet – universal access for the continent – is a realistic goal, but one that should be considered more long-term than anything else.
Speaking during a Q&A panel discussion at Mobile 360 Africa, Sifiso Dabengwa, CEO of MTN Group, says that while universal access in Africa is the ultimate goal of all the major role players in the industry, there are still a number of stumbling blocks that could see it take decades rather than years.
“I think it [universal access] is a great objective to have … to have that measure, to have everyone connected into the Internet,” Dabengwa says. “One of the things the world telecommunications industry has enabled us to do is close the gap with the developed world and there is a definite opportunity for us to impact across the continent.”
Despite the fact that the majority of Africa’s population lives in rural areas, Dabengwa says that the rolling out of infrastructure into these regions, while it may take time, is not an insurmountable problem.
“We have the ability to deliver infrastructure into rural areas,” he says. “And in the majority of cases, most operators are willing to do that. The issue is making sure – from a regulatory point of view – that sufficient spectrum and incentives are available. That general obligations are met.”
The allocation of additional spectrum to operators or, more specifically, the lack of it, is proving to be a major bugbear and it is a constant theme whispered during tea breaks at this year’s event. Debengwa admits that it is a problem – and not just for MTN.
“On the availability of spectrum,” he informed delegates, “do you know that right now there is not one single city on this continent that has continuous 4G? It’s a challenge. By now, most large cities should be able to provide this. Yes, the rural areas are catching up, but it is almost impossible to provide these services unless we get [more] official spectrum. Spectrum is the predominant problem. We are investing long-term and Internet availability is long-term. It’s going to be expensive, but in the longer term we are confident it is a worthwhile investment.
“We need a predictable regulatory environment [in light of this investment] and we’re being restricted in terms of spectrum,” he adds.
“The regulators and policy makers need to create an environment to make it easier for operators to invest,” Dabengwa continues. “We’re willing to invest. In most cases in Africa, the costs of getting into [this] business – from a regulatory point of view – were reasonable. What we’re asking is that the regulatory framework for voice, we’d like to see for data. But the key is spectrum. It has to be made available so that we can meet the demand of consumers.
“We’re making a long-term investment,” Dabengwa adds. “As an operator it is the right thing to do.”
So is universal access possible in Africa? “Yes, it is an achievable objective and it can be done,” he states.