How Successful Spectrum Awards Can Accelerate Digital Agendas in Africa

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The benefits of mobile broadband are clear to see all across Africa. For governments that want to continue to expand coverage and maximise the benefits from connectivity, making sure there is more affordable spectrum is the first step.

At the end of 2019, 477 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa subscribed to mobile services, accounting for 45 per cent of the population.

Also, the rollout of mobile technology has driven a fifth of income per capita growth over the last 20 years. These are impressive numbers. But with some 900 million people in Africa still unconnected, there is more work to be done.

Spectrum licensing decisions, and pricing in particular, play a crucial role in accelerating the adoption of mobile services and providing better networks and services for consumers and businesses. Our new “Effective Spectrum Pricing in Africa” report is unprecedented in scope and depth, tracking spectrum assignments across nearly 50 African countries for the 2010– 2019 period.

The negative impacts of high spectrum prices on connectivity in Africa are unfortunately clear to see. It is an issue that has to be addressed for the region to take full advantage of the benefits mobile broadband can bring.

The report’s key findings are:

Governments in Africa have assigned approximately half the amount of mobile spectrum compared with the global average. This gap in spectrum assignments has emerged and expanded over the last decade, making it difficult for operators to offer fast mobile broadband speeds.
Governments in the region have also on average licensed 3G and 4G spectrum around three years later than other regions.

African countries account for a large proportion of the highest spectrum prices globally. When spectrum prices are adjusted by income, Africa accounts for about half of all the high or extremely high spectrum prices worldwide. Even excluding extreme outliers, spectrum prices remain high. Median prices are four times higher than in the developed world and twice as high as the global median.

Licensing more spectrum earlier and at affordable prices can pay dividends for consumers. Higher amounts of spectrum and lower spectrum prices are strongly linked to higher population coverage, download speeds and adoption. Countries that have assigned spectrum earlier have also achieved higher coverage levels.

In short, mobile industry simply cannot be viewed as cash cows anymore. Government interventions to maximise revenue result in negative consequences for citizens in cities as well as rural areas. Instead, governments should release more spectrum in a timely manner.

This helps in order operators expand their network coverage, improve speeds and encourage adoption. The aim with our new report is to give governments and regulators the arguments they need in order to implement policies that help improve mobile capacity and expand connectivity.

The mobile market in the Sub-Saharan region is expected to reach several important milestones over the next five years: half a billion mobile subscribers in 2021, 1 billion mobile connections in 2024, and 50% subscriber penetration by 2025. As highlighted in our recently released position paper on expanding mobile coverage, the key to reaching these goals are real partnerships between governments and mobile operators.

Most importantly, together we can set the stage for more innovative mobile services and connect more people, wherever they may live. And with that bring the benefits of mobile connectivity to millions more.

The “Effective Spectrum Pricing in Africa” report can be downloaded here in English and here in French.

The writer is the Head of Africa, GSMA

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