Affordable smartphones drive digital inclusion in Africa

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Device adoption could lead to quantum leap to 4G

With mobile connectivity now being an integral part of the modern economy, a crucial point of any national development program must be digital inclusion. This is being achieved by expanding the coverage of mobile broadband, but there is something important to consider: the accessibility of smartphones.

A recent report by GSMA  indicates that smartphones account for over 39% of the 774 million mobile connections in sub-Saharan Africa. It is projected to grow significantly, but for the African people to fully reap the rewards of mobile connectivity, it is imperative that 4G smartphone devices are facilitated for the basic market.

This requires financial innovation together with the technological innovation that characterizes the sector. Smartphones should be cheaper if Africa wants to unlock the full potential of its people.

Fortunately, there are already encouraging signs that manufacturers, policy makers and network operators are creating partnerships to integrate this financial innovation into the pursuit of digital inclusion.

No Kenya, Safaricom launched recently a device financing program, in partnership with Google and Teleone, allowing low-income earners in the country to have access to quality 4G phones, through low installments, from 20 Kshs (R3) per day

The country has a high penetration in mobile telephony, but this has traditionally involved 2G phones. The campaign aims to bring over a million more customers to the digital economy.

Airtel Africa has expanded 4G adoption on the continent with its data offerings “more for more ”, increasing average data usage, with 4G now accounting for more than 60% of its data revenue.

However, one of the most effective ways to encourage smartphone adoption is by reducing the tax burden on mobile phones and services in the form of import duties and sales taxes. In this context, policymakers have a powerful role to play, empowering citizens with easier access to digital connectivity.

`As smartphones become the norm, the broadband spectrum can follow suit and network operators can transition to 4G and 5G based platforms, with all the benefits of high speed and mass connectivity that they offer.

The growing demand for 4G handsets indicates the moment when a market is ready for the transition to the 4G network, thus allowing the closure of the 3G spectrum, as India recently did. 

At the recent LTE 2020 World Conference, Sandeep Gupta, executive vice president of Barthi Airtel in India, said that the decision to close the 3G network was motivated by two considerations - the insertion of Smartphones and the right network resources, such as such as SDR (Software Defined Radio) and radio singleRAN, which supports 4G VoLTE.

However, the heart of this transition is accessible devices. In China, 4G adoption has been accelerated by the introduction of 100 Yuan (R238) handsets, catapulting millions into the future 4G and 5G.

Na South Africa, smartphones have become significantly more accessible, with devices like the Huawei Y5 Lite sold for around R1 300. However, the goal remains to make smartphones with 4G even more accessible and truly democratize connectivity.   

The simplest way to accelerate digital inclusion may be to change our understanding of the place of 4G devices in our society.

As soon as smartphones are seen as a commodity, a basic right, rather than a luxury, they can be marketed, sold and taxed accordingly, taking all of humanity into the new digital economy.

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