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The growth of the mobile broadband market in South Africa was one of the key themes emerging from the opening keynote addresses at the Africa Com conference being held in Cape Town on Wednesday and Thursday.
Speaking at the CTICC in Cape Town, mobile operator MTN’s CEO Karel Pienaar said that mobile broadband — accessing data on cellphones — would be the key growth area over the next 10 years in the mobile service provider industry.
Over the last year, Pienaar said that data services as a percentage of MTN’s total revenue had pushed through the 10% barrier, and this would continue to grow at a rapid rate.
Pienaar spoke about smartphones being the major factor driving this growth: currently, they make up around 60% of all phones being sold in South Africa – a percentage that has increased seemingly overnight as a result of handsets like the iPhone and BlackBerry and Samsung Galaxy gaining widespread adoption.
At the same time, he said cellphone consumers are becoming more demanding in their need for mobile data access – but that with that demand, usage continues to increase which benefits all players in the market. Ensuring this continued growth involves several key challenges, Pienaar said, including ensuring that accessing this data remains affordable for South African consumers.
Ross Bateson, a GSMA advisor, says that working with government to ensure global harmonisation of the frequency spectrum across which data is transmitted will help to do this.
By ensuring that the spectrum for cellphones in South Africa is in line with the rest of the world, producers of the handsets can use economies of scale to their advantage, since they can mass-produce handsets that can be used in multiple countries, which in turn lowers the cost of each handset.
Another key way to reduce data costs by carriers is investing in technologies to improve efficiencies in providing these services. Pienaar says that MTN’s investment in this area includes infrastructure such as laying fibre and undersea cables for more widespread mobile data access.
The increase in availability of mobile data services in South Africa means that mobile content will be freely accessible anywhere in the world. This presents a challenge for local media, who now must compete on a global scale with consumers who have more widespread choice from where they get their content. Competing effectively will involve being able to offer what international producers can’t – such as adding a local perspective when providing news about Africa, for example.
A recent GSMA report on the economic impact of wireless broadband in South Africa found that wireless broadband and related industries could generate around 1.8% of GDP (translating to around R72-billion) by 2015, and about 28 000 jobs.
Realising this growth will depend largely on efforts from key stakeholders including government bodies, cell phone carriers and related suppliers to enable lower latency, higher speed, and lower data costs – which will in turn translate into higher consumer adoption.