Africa’s dilemma: Cheap Smartphones vs High Data costs

By Emmanuel Allottey

Africa has the highest mobile penetration in the world and despite this attainment Africa has the world’s most expensive prepaid mobile data plans. Over the years, the price of smartphones has reduced making it affordable to Africans, however high data costs are preventing many Africans from being consistently online. The impact of COVID-19 has emphasised the importance of technology and internet connectivity in the fight against the spread of the virus.

The impact of COVID-19 on the education system has been devastating, leading to the partial or total closures of schools, universities, and colleges. The learning function has been migrated online with teachers and students encouraged to interact through technology.

The implementation of this initiative has been unsuccessful due to the inherent disparities in the education sector. The Income gap between learners at Private schools and Public or government backed schools becomes pronounced with the required cost associated with accessing the internet. Learners in poor and rural areas due to affordability cannot access the internet.

The biggest driver behind the cost of internet is poor infrastructure. Telecommunication infrastructure in Africa is lacking due to the cost of investment required to set up core equipment such as fiber optic lines, cell towers, internet routers.

A partnership between government and private stakeholders is required to reduce the cost of infrastructure setup. There is a disparity between investment in metropolitan areas compared to rural areas. A joint venture between private and public organisations will reduce the financial burden on individual companies to invest in telecommunication infrastructure.

The relatively few internet service providers play a role in the prices charged for data. Regulators need to make it easier for new entrants into the communication industry, creating competition that leads to reduced fees and benefit to customers. Heavy reliance on USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) a protocol used by GSM cell phones to communicate with their service provider’s computers via text message has created an alternative to using the internet.

Customers do not require an internet connection to perform transactions such as send money, pay utility bills and will naturally gravitate to using the cheapest alternative to the internet.

Smartphone penetration in Africa has spiked over the past decade, however progress in reducing the cost of accessing the internet has not followed the same trajectory. Data costs continue to remain high and without deliberate intervention by stakeholders this dilemma will continue to prevail.

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