|Issue:||Africa and the Middle East 2005|
|Topic:||Mobile – the quiet African revolution|
Callum Dick is Chief Executive Officer of AlanDick. Mr Dick has held many roles in the engineering and commercial sectors since first joining the company, from driving development into the UK cellular market to rapid international expansion to serve global operators. Prior to his appointment as CEO, Mr Dick served as the Managing Director of the International Division. Callum Dick is a chartered Engineer and MBA graduate.
Low incomes and poor telecommunications infrastructure keep many Africans from using the Internet. Internet Protocol technology, which lets mobile networks offer inexpensive voice- and text-messaging and Internet access, is changing this. Mobile phones are often the African’s sole communications device, so local ingenuity has created services unheard of elsewhere, such as activation of electricity meters via text messaging and cellular enabled pill bottles. Mobile services are so popular that people have reduced spending in other areas to pay for them.
Depending on who you talk to, Africa has somewhere between 800 and 850 million people, yet only 1.4 per cent of this vast population accesses the World Wide Web, from homes, offices or the growing number of Internet cafés that have sprung up in most cities. Analysts point to the relatively low incomes and poor telecommunications links in many parts of Africa as the main reasons for the lack of take-up of the Internet by the general population. This painfully low level of Internet access is set to change over the next five years thanks to the arrival of IP (Internet Protocol) technology on the cellular networks. IP technology allows the mobile phone networks to efficiently route all types of mobile phone calls, whether they be voice, text messages or mobile Internet surfing sessions, as small packets over their networks. It is even possible to use Internet telephony technology on the mobile phone network to provide cost-effective – or even free – “Push-to-Talk” CB (citizen’s band) style radio services. The technology behind this quiet revolution is, thankfully, transparent to mobile phone users and, the good news is, the technology is changing the way many Africans communicate and interact with each other. The current crop of mobile phones, known as GSM handsets, have given many Africans the freedom to make or receive phone calls from anywhere they wish, provided they are within cellular network coverage. However, there is so much more one can do with a mobile phone than simply making and receiving voice calls with a mobile phone. Text messaging, for example, has changed the way people communicate; it is ideal for those without ready access to the Internet and/or email. For many Africans, in fact, a mobile phone is the family’s sole communications device. In much of Africa, where many people live, there is simply no telecommunications infrastructure to connect a home phone to the network. For these people, mobile phones can open up a whole new world of possibilities. In Uganda, for example, citizens there spent almost a billion shillings (US$570,000) sending greetings to their friends and family over the Christmas/New Year season last year. That amounts to around 6.5 million SMS messages at a cost of 120 shillings (6.8 cents) each – an affordable amount of money in comparison to other forms of festive greetings. Elsewhere in Africa, a small company called TrueAfrican (www.trueafrican.com) has developed an electronic payment system that allows mobile phone users to pay for their Web-based IP music downloads – either at home or in an Internet café – via text message. Each song download on the service costs around 2,000 shillings (US$1.15); 25 per cent of each payment is then sent monthly to the musician concerned. In South Africa, meanwhile, an experiment in Atlantis, in Western Cape, allows citizens to trigger their supply of electricity using a text message on their mobile phones. The technology trial, which finished in March, allowed people in Atlantis to key in their electricity meter number and send it via text message to Eskom, the local electricity supplier. The user then received an activation code by return, allowing them to trigger their monthly electricity quota without having to make a journey to a vending machine or a manned Eskom office. Elsewhere in South Africa, a Cape Town doctor has developed a cellular-enabled pill bottle that reminds patients to take their medicines and warns them if they are about to take an extra dose by mistake. According to David Green, the doctor who invented the technology, the SIMpill device helps patients who are on long-term medication for problems such as asthma, diabetes, epilepsy, HIV and TB. Dr Green has already developed a text messaging system that sends alerts to elderly and sick patients telling them when it is time to take their medication. He says that the SIMpill bottle – effectively a pill bottle with text messaging facilities – is a major breakthrough, since it also allows patients to receive lifestyle tips and advisories from their doctors. Each SIMpill bottle costs around 1,800 Rand or US$295, but the potential saving are significant; Dr Green claims that an analysis of 11,000 epilepsy patients found that 700 ended up in hospital because they forgot how or when to properly administer their medication. The hospital bills for those 700 patients came to more than 24 million Rand, but, says Green, if all 11,000 patients had been issued their own SIMpill bottles, the cost would have been just two million Rand. What about mobile phone users, though, who live and work in rural areas? In many parts of Africa, installing cellular base stations in quite rural areas, thanks to the deployment expertise that has been developed over time, this is a relatively easy task. How, though, do people in rural areas top up their mobiles without having to travel several miles to the nearest shop that sells mobile phone scratch cards? M-Tel, the Nigerian cellular carrier, reckons it has the answer with its recently introduced Share-de-Talk service, which allows one mobile phone user to send part of their call credit to another user via text message. One interesting tendency, seen in many parts of Africa, is that people are spending less on their habitual leisure-time expenditure so they can pay to use their mobile phone, to send text messages and to talk with their friends and families. In many parts of Africa, for example, people gather at local hostelries most evenings, much as is in cities the world over. To the consternation of some hostelry owners, a good number of mobile phone users have reduced their drinking expenditures in order to fuel their text messaging and voice calls habit. Bar owners have responded by stocking mobile phone vouchers, and even accessories, to keep up their income levels. Whilst the humble cellular phone has changed the way many Africans interact with each other, there are further changes just around the corner, thanks to the continued migration in recent years of mobile phone networks to IP technology. IP technology is what makes the Third Generation (3G) mobile phone networks tick, and allows mobiles to move data much more efficiently between mobiles than with the current GSM technology. Thanks to IP technology, 3G mobile operators can offer voice calling with the same – or better – call quality than a regular landline. On top of this, text messages can now include full-sized pictures and even video clips, which can be exchanged with other 3G mobile phone users. Mobile Internet access has also improved greatly; mobile phone users can now surf the mobile Internet at speeds comparable to those offered by broadband providers and can obtain services previously seen only in the biggest cities in Africa. For many Africans living in rural communities, in fact, surfing the mobile Internet using a cellular phone is likely to be their very first experience of using the Internet and accessing the World Wide Web. The current crop of 3G mobile handsets, of course, is slightly larger and heavier than their GSM counterparts. The new 3G phones are also more expensive, at around US$400 each, than a comparable GSM phone, but these disadvantages will disappear within the next few years, just as they did in the early days of GSM technology a decade ago. According to MTN, one of Africa’s largest communications groups, around 10 to 15 per cent of African citizens will have access to a 3G mobile by 2010 – that’s between 80 and 120 million people, many of whom will have never used the Internet for Web surfing and/or email. There will be many handsets bought and a lot of money spent – money that will be ploughed back into the economy by the 3G networks, which are keen on investing for the future. As 3G evolves, the networks across Africa are developing their own interim solutions for today’s mobile phone users. MTN and a few other mobile carriers, for example, are rolling out a system with performance halfway between that of GSM and 3G known as EDGE. EDGE will allow many Africans to get their first glimpse of the Internet; it is not as fast as 3G, but it is a lot faster than GSM – which is good news. To drive mobile phone Internet usage upwards, MTN took the bold step of slashing mobile data transmission costs in its home market of South Africa in early April, reducing the price of one megabyte of data from 50 Rand (US$8.33) to just two (US$0.33). The reduced data transmission prices are available to all users of South African mobile phones. MTN says it is planning to slash the mobile data costs for users of its networks in the other African countries it serves, including Swaziland and Nigeria. An ITU report from mid – 2004 suggests that mobile take-up in Africa is increasing at around 65 per cent per annum. This growth rate will increase, both this year and in the years ahead, as Africans embrace the benefits that mobile telephony services offer them: easy voice calls, text messages and, soon, mobile access to the Internet.