[xinhua] Mobile phone usage in Africa has increased dramatically over the past five years but there is still potential for enormous growth, according to a new study.
By the end of 2008, Africa had 246 million mobile subscriptions and mobile penetration has risen from just five percent in 2003 to well over 30 percent today, says a report released in Johannesburg by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) last week.
"The increase in the number of mobile cellular subscriptions over the last five years has defied all predictions and Africa remains the region with the highest mobile growth rate," according to an ITU document "Information Society Statistical Profiles 2009: Africa".
It says the high ratio of mobile cellular subscriptions to fixed telephone lines and the high mobile cellular growth rate suggest that Africa has taken the lead in the shift from fixed to mobile telephony, a trend that can be observed worldwide.
The number of Internet users has also grown faster than in other regions.
Yet the report notes that despite rapid growth, "Africa's ICT (information and communication technology) penetration levels in 2009 are still far behind the rest of the world and very few African countries reach ICT levels comparable to global averages".
It says fewer than five percent of Africans use the Internet, and fixed and mobile broadband penetration levels are negligible.
"Indeed, the digital divide between the African region and the rest of the world is much more pronounced than the divide within the region, with very few countries reaching ICT levels comparable to global averages."
The research shows that African countries are facing a number of challenges in increasing ICT levels. These include the lack of full liberalization of markets and the limited availability of infrastructure, such as shortage of international Internet bandwidth. "In addition, prices for ICT services remain very high compared to income levels."
On the question of infrastructure, the report says there are practically no cable networks and many countries face a shortage of international Internet bandwidth.
"As a result, fixed broadband penetration is low and broadband prices are beyond the reach of the majority of the population. The large majority of countries (22 out of 32 included in the ICT price basket) have fixed broadband prices that correspond to more than 100 percent of their monthly GNI (gross national income) per capita".
In other words, the monthly rental of broadband costs more than most people earn in a month.
"Mobile broadband is in its very initial stage but has shown higher growth than fixed broadband and may be Africa's most promising broadband access technology of the future."
Important progress in the mobile sector includes increased access to mobile networks-- from 25 percent population coverage in2000 to 58.5 percent in 2008 -- and a mobile cellular penetration rate of 31 percent in 2008 (up from 12.5 percent in 2005). Mobile subscriptions today are also more evenly distributed across countries than they were in 2005.
"These achievements have been greatly supported by the development of mobile services and applications that meet the requirements of users in the region, such as prepaid services, text messaging, and m-banking. Despite this important progress, the region needs to make an effort to upgrade its infrastructure and achieve mobile cellular levels similar to the rest of the world", says the report.
The analysts believe there are two main areas of ICT policy concern for the region: "(a) to sustain mobile cellular and Internet user growth and extend access to lower-income segments of the population; and (b) to take the necessary steps to enable greater broadband access."
South Africa, the continent's economic powerhouse, is no longer as dominant as it once was in terms of mobile phone usage. In 2000 SA accounted for 74 percent of Africa's mobile connections, but that dropped to 19 percent last year.
The International Telecommunications Union says the figures highlight the acceleration of growth in African mobile and Internet markets outside of SA in less than a decade.
Growth in Nigeria has been very strong. Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania and Cote d'Ivoire have also accounted for the change in distribution n of mobile connections.
The 76-page report was produced in preparation for the ITU World Telecommunication Development Conference, known as WTDC-10, which will take place in Hyderabad, India from May 24 to June 4, 2010.
Mobile phone usage in Africa shoots up, potential remains high