South Africa is not only the largest telecoms market in Africa, but also is one of the most advanced ecosystems on the continent with 80 active tech hubs across the country.

Similarly, with mobile penetration at 176% and internet penetration climbing steadily at 55%, there is no doubt that as citizens lives rapidly change and lines between work-life blur quicker than ever before, this mobile and technology ecosystem has already, and will continue to witness rapid growth.

However, what is clear is that to ensure a functional, economically viable ecosystem the country will need to gear towards much stronger technology access and infrastructure but also, as this growth happens, tighter controls will be needed to mitigate the associated and very real risks that present themselves.

Riaan Graham, enterprise sales director at CommScope sub-Sahara Africa, says: “We know that every 10% of connectivity has the potential to generate 1% GDP growth and so ensuring not only access to connectivity, but also that we drive down the cost of data, is a critical consideration for the viable growth of our local ecosystem.”

The cost of data is directly relevant to the low internet penetration rate and is a major barrier to expanding and making affordable broadband services available in Africa’s most industrialised economy.

WASPA GM Ilonka Badenhorst agrees, indicating that: “As more mobile manufacturers come on board and technology advances, we are now witnessing rapid growth in smartphone uptake and as a result, the demand for better, affordable access to data. Similarly, if we consider that remote working is opening up a whole new category of potential, reliant on mobile, where many more people started using it this year for things like education and digital monetary systems as well as a massive increase in the use of apps – the need for reliable broadband is key.”

While many industry players believe that 5G will be the enabler of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and, where stats indicate that 40% of the globe will be covered by 5G networks by 2024, handling 25% of all mobile data, the reality is that as a country we are not there yet.

“5G is an expensive technology to deploy and as such, is only done locally in selected high LSM areas and therefore, the adoption of Wi-Fi 6 where it doesn’t make economic sense for 5G will be necessary – which means we will operate on a hybrid access model, with mobile operators adapting to offer the right data services to connect South Africans effectively,” states Graham.

“This is not a bad thing though. As we move up the chain capacity, density and capability will diminish, networks will take strain and so having an alternative to 5G spectrum is key to creating access for consumers and businesses, but it will also mean that tougher decisions will need to be made around infrastructure ensuring that both transport and access networks are capable of handling capacity and implementing solutions that enable this.”

More access, however, results in accessibility for consumers to different resources – with reliance on the internet for everyday tasks that may once have been done physically. In fact, recent stats indicate that over a third of shoppers prefer to make their purchases online until a Covid-19 vaccine is available where grocery shopping apps have seen 200% growth recently.

“With pros there are always cons and as an industry we need to place a strong focus on educating consumers about the dangers of this growing mobile ecosystem and how to navigate it safely – where cheaper handsets entering the market may not come with sufficient malware protection for example and of course, where more access opens consumers and business up to more fraud,” says Badenhorst.

“We also need to ensure that we are teaching consumers how to secure their data across various devices and when using free Wi-Fi for example to ensure that their personal information is not compromised. For businesses in a growing mobile ecosystem, this holds true too – where there is far more pressure to comply with PoPI they need to understand that the ‘(July 2021) deadline is not the target’, compliance forms part of their general good corporate governance principles and so the sooner they comply the better.”

As 2021 fast approaches we are to expect a rapid boom in our mobile ecosystem in Africa with a projected half a billion mobile subscribers next year, 1-billion mobile connections by 2024, and a 50% subscriber penetration in the next five years.

“It is this growth that will set the tone for massive ecosystem changes next year but also has the potential to be a driving force for our GDP. It is now that key aspects around access, education and capability need to be addressed and bed down to truly realise the potential that 2021 and beyond can have on our mobile ecosystem in Africa,” concludes Graham.