According to a new report from the International Telecomms Union (ITU) the number of mobile phone subscriptions is expected to pass seven billion by early 2013, surpassing the world’s population of 7.1 billion. This news come as little surprise to many.
Despite revelations and examples of how mobile technology is being used in healthcare, finance, education and politics, Africa is still well behind in both mobile subscriptions per population and, even more so, in Internet access. The study revealed that while 40 per cent of the world’s population is online, yet only 16 per cent of Africa has access to the internet demonstrating how the continent is still lagging behind.
The mobile device, and its gateway to the internet, offers Africa the opportunity to skip the desktop and laptop generation and go straight into mobile internet access, which is likely to overtake desktop internet access globally over the next few years. Mobile access has democratised technology and allows people to connect with one another across geographical borders. Given the size of the continent, the distances people need to travel to earn a living and the lack of transport infrastructure, this cross-border point is crucial. The mobile device acts as the social glue for a society from both a personal point of view as well as a broader societal perspective. The next step for Africa is going beyond standard SMS and call services and using the device to access online information. To this point, it is crucial that the African continent is not left behind.
What hope is there? Africa does have some of the fastest growing economies in the world and has a burgeoning middle class, driving demand for mobile phones. The African market is also likely to see a flood of much cheaper smartphones that are more practical and allow access to the Internet, which for most Africans is still not accessible through the ubiquitous feature phone.
Much debate has taken place over development aid and whether or not it is the most effective way of helping African people in need. This site does not attempt to contribute to that debate. However, could mobile phone access as well as the cost of accessing the internet through mobile broadband be subsidised by development aid, allowing the mobile device to be used in crucial areas such as education, agriculture and healthcare?
Finally, could we start to see advertisers subsidise data therefore opening access, with the awareness that people will be put off viewing content because of the high data costs associated? This is certainly a potential in the West (think the growth of Mobile Video and data costs associated) and the developing world could follow suit.
It is clear that, despite the fact that mobile penetration is making significant strides in Africa, it lacks behind Europe, Asia and the Americas in subscriptions per head. To a greater extent, Africa is lagging behind the rest of the world in overall internet access. More needs to be done to increase access to this tool of empowerment and ensure Africa is not left behind.