Mobile Communications

Spectrum Policy - Accelerating Growth In Sub-Saharan Africa

The mobile revolution is one of the most important socio-economic trends in Sub-Saharan Africa, transforming the lives of millions of people and creating endless opportunities in areas as diverse as education, healthcare, financial services and agriculture. The scale of uptake of mobile services in the region is astounding, contributing over 6% of GDP, supporting over 3.3 million jobs and adding US $21 billion to public funding through taxation. According to GSMA Intelligence, these figures will rise significantly in the coming years. However, without a supportive policy framework to incentivise mobile operators to extend coverage and deploy higher speed networks, mobile cannot fulfil its full potential for socio-economic development in Sub-Saharan Africa.

No other region in the world can compare in terms of the rapid growth of unique mobile subscribers. Over the last five years it has grown 18% per year, reaching a total of 253 million individual users in 2013. However, despite increasing consumer demand, still less than one in three people in the region have subscribed to mobile services. When compared to the global average of close to one in two — or four out of five in the European Union — we can clearly see huge untapped potential, which could provide a substantial economic boost for Sub-Saharan economies.

The demand for mobile solutions goes far beyond basic voice services. Mobile devices, using 3G or even 2.5G EDGE networks, are already the main platform for internet access in the region. These services help millions of people benefit from a wide variety of online opportunities despite the limited reach of the fixed broadband network.

Mobile technology is a powerful tool that helps governments and local communities tackle some of Sub-Saharan Africa’s most pressing challenges. Mobile money, one of the region’s most compelling success stories, illustrates how new technologies can foster growth and financial inclusion. In 2013 there were almost 57 million registered users and almost 110 mobile money initiatives offering new possibilities to populations that otherwise had no access to banking services.

mHealth is another inspiring example of mobile technology at the service of local communities. To date there are almost 250 programmes extending the reach and quality of healthcare while reducing costs. Even a seemingly unrelated sector such as agriculture can greatly benefit. Smallholder farmers, who constitute the majority of the labour force in the region, can improve productivity and increase their incomes with mobile solutions.

The list of benefits the mobile industry can deliver Sub-Saharan Africa is very long. However, by focusing on short-term profits rather than long-term gains, governments can easily introduce obstacles that will make this list significantly shorter. The temptation to pump up budget revenues by increasing the taxes imposed on network operators or introducing complicated processes for spectrum licensing can drastically curtail the mobile revolution. Operators and investors need a policy framework that ensures the stability and legal certainty necessary to fund the huge investments required to extend coverage to more remote areas and meet the growing appetite for higher speed connectivity. It is therefore crucial to avoid heavy-handed regulation that would hinder further mobile advancements by stifling innovation, increasing operating costs and ultimately harming consumers.

An efficient and harmonised cross-border approach to spectrum release should be the top priority for national regulators in Sub-Saharan Africa. The ongoing debate on spectrum allocation in the European Union provides strong arguments showcasing that coordinated spectrum management is a decisive factor for stimulating investment in broadband connectivity.

Smart policy is paramount to reap the full benefits offered by mobile technology. By 2020 the mobile ecosystem is forecast to contribute over 8% of GDP in Sub-Saharan Africa, making the mobile industry a more powerful agent of positive socio-economic change than anywhere else in the world. Regulators can help to realise this potential by creating supportive conditions for expanding network coverage in rural areas, making mobile use more affordable for local populations and securing harmonised spectrum allocation for mobile operators on a fair and transparent basis.


Isabelle Mauro, Head of Africa & Middle East for the GSMA


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Isabelle Mauro

Isabelle Mauro, Head of Africa & Middle East for the GSMA

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