As the physical, biological and digital worlds merge in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), mobile technology innovation and quality network infrastructure become crucial to reshaping and improving living standards for more people.

By Giovanni Chiarelli, chief technology and information officer at MTN SA

The technology is all within reach, but increased traffic will require mobile network operators to roll out purpose-built networks to provide seamless interoperability among all the “smart things” people will be using in the future.

As this fast pace of change continues and demand increases for near-zero cost, high speed connectivity, Africa cannot afford to fall behind 4IR. The key will be to think of the benefit of technology within an African context and to tackle the challenges the continent will face.

These challenges were astutely highlighted in a white paper on African cities in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), prepared by MTN and Absa for the recent World Economic Forum. It highlighted that while 5G offers tremendous potential benefits, cost and access remain a challenge for the majority of Africans. The risk though is that if Africa misses this opportunity it loses out on the first truly scalable solution to connect everything and everyone at speeds up to 200 times faster than 4G or LTE.

To place this in context from a South African perspective, research by World Wide Worx and SYSPRO found that the technologies that make up 4IR have yet to be adopted with any enthusiasm by local enterprises. Despite the hype, only 13% of corporate South Africa is currently using Artificial Intelligence (AI), with the cost of skills standing out as a major obstacle.

However, it is notable that other areas of 4IR like robotic process automation are increasingly popular in South Africa as more business processes are automated using “bots” which are becoming more readily and cheaply available than AI.

Notably, in South Africa, 92% of enterprises have adopted the Internet of Things (IoT) and this creates tremendous opportunities in the future because as it becomes more affordable and accessible, smaller enterprises begin to reap the rewards.

So, despite the challenges, the combination of device, cloud, network and services is forming an astoundingly powerful virtuous quartet for innovation and the ability to place more people at the cutting edge of the digital economy. Access to data will increasingly be the lifeblood of the IoT ecosystem.

In similar vein, a Ruckus Networks and World Wide Worx study reveals the importance of Wi-Fi in achieving pervasive connectivity. It shows that Wi-Fi connectivity has become critical to employee productivity in big and small enterprises – and that quality is more important than cost.

It is clear technological change will usher in challenges and uncertainty, but at the same time it brings highly innovative and cost-effective mobile solutions that will improve and enhance the digital lives of consumers and merchants across Africa.

For instance, through the fintech revolution innovative, secure and accessible solutions are becoming increasingly available. Demand for interconnected, multi-purpose solutions will increase in the future, opening the door to even more advanced invention and collaboration by mobile providers and financial services companies.

In South Africa, a fabulous opportunity also exists for mobile players to harness fintech to build digital pathways which can boost levels of financial inclusion, which remains very low.

The rising number of deals in the fintech space certainly supports the notion that investors have started to gain confidence in fintechs operating in South Africa and have seen their high potential.

A unique opportunity therefore exists for mobile operators to facilitate transfers, payments, loans, deposits, insurance and marketplace solutions. All of this can be offered off the network, distribution network and further facilitated with one registration.

The days of being a one-dimensional service provider are truly over and MTN is fast transforming from just being a mobile phone company to becoming a multi-purpose digital platform innovator. Aside from moving strongly in the mobile money services space on the continent, it has also extended its offerings to cater for everything from money transfer to digital-based insurance, and a range of other digital services.

In this regard MTN recently made a strong move into insuretech by harnessing its connectivity and digital capability to help reduce paperwork and the hassle factor. Micro-insurance is another area where exciting potential solutions exist to include more people in the formal financial system, especially for those who have not been able to access traditional funeral products.

There is little doubt mobile network operators will play a crucial role in providing the infrastructure ecosystem that will enable industries to harness the full benefits of digitisation. In this increasingly connected world, the focus should not be on trying to become another Facebook or Google, but rather supporting the digital pathways clients adopt.

Harnessing modern technologies will improve how companies interact with customers and stable, fast and secure networks will be the key enablers of these digital highways of the future.