The Mobile Broadband Evolution in Africa

By Jean-Philippe Gillet, Vice President, Europe, Middle East & Africa

As the mobile industry evolves from 2G to 3G, from 3G to 4G and then to 5G and beyond, the impact on a region’s commercial, socio-economic and educational opportunities cannot be underestimated. In fact, that transformation is crucial to enabling developing areas to grow and thrive. Nowhere is this more evident than in Africa, where 365 million mobile phone subscribers today are expected to grow to 508 million by 2020. However, even as the number of subscribers grows, the percent of mobile users on 4G in Africa is expected to grow just a fraction – from 1% today to 6% by 2020.

While the industry may dream about 5G networks, the reality is that Africa is still in a massive deployment of 2G. For instance, MTN added 520 new 2G sites in 2014. With such a large land area, much of the region is more remote – and the difference between urban and remote mobile deployments is vast. This is still very much a market in its infancy – which means great opportunity for the region, the mobile operators and even for Intelsat.

So what’s holding the region back from a more accelerated deployment of a faster and more robust mobile standard? It comes down to the equipment – the kits on the ground that receive the signals as well as the mobile phones, which are costly for the average citizen.  To compound the challenge, mobile operators must deploy not only 3G or 4G kits where there is no coverage today, but they must upgrade the equipment at existing base stations to 3G at some point, as well.

The key to unlocking this evolution in Africa is the revenue per subscriber. For instance, an Airtel customer today may spend in average $3.40 per month on their service, including some modest data service. However, that’s a difficult expense to justify in some areas, such as Mozambique, where the average annual income is $620.

In some areas, however, there is a growing middle class that can afford the data service, and those areas are likely to realize 3G and 4G deployments sooner rather than later. As an example, MTN Nigeria increased its data users by 18.1% in 2014, with data revenue growing by 28.8%. In fact, the middle class is evolving in most countries, which will create more opportunity for GSM operators to provide more services.

For Intelsat, there is an imperative to deploy mobile networks into the most remote areas – perhaps more so than in evolving the urban networks to the next generation. This is because a villager in the DRC may need to walk 48 hours distance just to see a doctor. Yet with a mobile phone, they can talk to a doctor or nurse within minutes rather than days. Without connectivity, villagers are easy victims, unable to call for help in times of need.  A 3G network – not even going to 4G or 5G – can mean dramatic advances in education, health, agriculture and government services, bringing access to villages that was previously only available in the more connected capital city or regional capital.

Intelsat is enabling this mobile network evolution throughout Africa, serving 50 mobile operators, including ten of the largest on the continent, and providing connectivity to 81% of all wireless subscribers in the region. We are poised to support the continuing deployment of 3G-5G kits, as well, especially with the design of our Intelsat EpicNG high throughput satellites, the second of which, Intelsat 33e, is due to launch in 2016. With the Intelsat EpicNG spot beam technology, the size of the necessary kits is diminishing, making them easier to carry and install. What’s more, we are innovating solar-powered solutions to accommodate the unpredictable power supply in rural – and even urban – areas in Africa.

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