3G: BRIDGING AFRICA’S DIGITAL DIVIDE?

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Cellular services based on next-generation technologies such as EDGE and 3G will find a strong market in Africa if they are tied to useful applications, despite the widespread poverty on the continent.

That's the word from Sanjay Kaul, senior business advisor at Ericsson South Africa. He says that experience around the world indicates that the availability of mature, useful applications and services is what drives consumers and businesses to adopt next-generation cellular services rather than the impressive data transfer rates that they offer.

EDGE (Enhanced Data rates for Global Evolution) is a wireless communications system that increases data throughput to 384Kbps, while 3G offers cheaper and faster Web connections and high-quality multimedia content with data connection speeds up to 2Mbit/s, way faster than a standard dial-up connection.

Africa needs to look at 3G technologies from a different perspective. According to the UMTS Forum, 3G will be “vital in bridging Africa’s digital divide” by offering a cost effective means of providing Internet access. Until now, the penetration of PC’s and the Internet has been minimal, providing the opportunity for mobile phones to become the first PC-type device the majority of Africans will see.

3G technology can also offer more voice capacity by efficiently utilising its air interface and wireless bandwidth used for data. Enhanced and high-speed data services can stimulate uptake and usage for growth services such as multimedia and video, augmenting fixed broadband at home.

As already witnessed with the CDMA2000 networks in Nigeria, speeds of 144Kbits/s are sufficient and represent a growing trend as a wire-line substitute for voice and data, with wireless infrastructure commanding tariffs at wire-line line rates or cheaper. Data mobility will pull in-building users who demand the same convenience as seen with voice mobility in the business segment and further exploit untapped revenue in mobile VPN solutions.

Kaul says that the slow start in adoption of 3G in most parts of the developed world can be attributed to the relatively high cost of the service and a dearth of truly interesting and valuable services and applications. As compelling infotainment services such as games, streaming audio and video, as well as downloadable music clips started to become available, adoption started to ramp up quickly.

3G services like video telephony in Africa is likely to be a niche market, lucrative for media companies and operators, but popular only among Africa's few middle-class and wealthy consumers. However, if video telephony is packed with services that address security, distance education, eMedicine etc. it will appeal to the mass market particularly in rural areas.

In a continent starved of broadband connectivity to support business and social development, one of the most obvious applications for 3G is the provision of affordable, always-on Internet access. Likewise, applications such as multimedia messaging and location-based services will probably take off fairly slowly.

“Looking at the forecasts for mobile penetration, the ARPU (Average Revenues Per User) levels are bound to decline. The possibility of offering useful data services and applications can provide operators and service providers with a way of beefing up their declining ARPU levels; something that there is an evident hunger for in the African market,” he adds.

Kaul adds, “Take services like telemedicine as an example. Cellular networks reach into parts of Africa still untouched by the fixed-line network and can be 3G-enabled reasonably cost-effectively.”

"In this context that means medical professionals in rural areas where there is a skills shortage could confer with specialists in urban centers using 3G connectivity. In that sense, the service could be sold as a way of saving lives rather than as a technology," he concludes.