The world is now at a point where the mobile phone is no longer a luxury but a necessity. And not just a mobile phone, good 4G connectivity is becoming more and more inevitable as modern economies take shape around the need for people, Governments and organizations to keep in touch. In short, digital inclusion is now more of a need than not, except for the sad fact that smartphone affordability is standing in the way of a majority of the world population.
It is now almost a must that expanding mobile broadband coverage should go hand in hand with smartphone penetration. This combination is what will fuel the modern economy and drive the next wave of national development programs.
According to a recent GSMA report, 39% of the 774 Million connections in Sub-Saharan Africa are on smartphones. This number will grown significantly as per protections but to fuel its growth even further, it is critical that 4G-enabled smartphone handsets be made more easily attainable for the entry-level market. As such, there is need for team working between financial and technological innovators in the sector. This way the much needed affordability of smartphones in Africa can and will be achieved.
A good example of this innovations is the Lipa Mdogo Mdogo partnership between Safaricom and Google whereby low-income earners on 2G can upgrade to 4G with a handset in instalments of as little as Ksh20 per day. The Neon Ray phone under this program costs Ksh5,999/- and customers will pay an initial Ksh.1,000/- then pay the balance in said instalments. In a great incentive towards upgrading to 4G, this is a pay as you use plan where one walks away with the phone upon payment of the deposit. This campaign aims to bring a million customers onto 4G and therefore into the digital economy and for a country whose large population is on 2G, this is a step in the right direction.
It is also a clear and encouraging example of how manufacturers, policy makers and network operators are partnering to drive digital inclusion. Once smartphones become cheaper and this easy to buy, the people will utilize these opportunities and unlock their full potential.
Other than Safaricom’s Lipa Mdogo Mdogo, Airtel Africa has expanded 4G adoption on the continent with its “more for more” data offers, increasing average data use, with 4G now accounting for more than 60 per cent of its data revenue.
All these are good and laudable efforts. However a more effective means of making smartphones affordable and encouraging more people to buy them is reducing the tax burden on phones and on services. This is where policy makers come in.
In an almost natural progression, smartphones will become more common place, players in the broadband arena will make services better and faster, and network operators will come in with highspeed 4G and 5G based platforms. Mass connectivity and the benefits that it brings will inevitably follow. As it is, there are indications that with surging demand for 4G handsets, market forces might just dictate the shutting down of 3G with time. Already India has been able to do this recently and at a recent LTE World Summit 2020, Sandeep Gupta, executive vice president of Barthi Airtel in India, said the decision to shut down the 3G network was motivated by two considerations – smartphone penetration, and the right network assets, such as SDR (software Defined Radio) and singleRAN radio, which supports 4G VoLTE.
Such milestones will only come about successfully with a mind shift where we see smartphones as a basic right and not a luxury. Then it can get out of the luxury tax bracket and be marketed accordingly. Connectivity will then be democratised and digital inclusion will be hastened.