Africa closes tech gap with flashy phones
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
Rickety minibus taxis weave between corrugated iron shacks, dodging street hawkers and the odd scrawny child with trousers gaping at the knee. Alexandra is one of South Africa’s roughest townships, and yet you can switch on your laptop there, slide in a data card and access your e-mail in seconds using the world’s most advanced commercial wireless technology.
About a decade after mobile phones started to spread across the poorest continent, trailing Europe by several years, wireless technology in major cities is catching up with that in the West.
South African mobile operators Vodacom and MTN in March launched HSDPA (high-speed downlink packet access), wireless broadband technology that is five times faster than the first third-generation (3G) networks. With top download speeds of more than 1.5 megabits per second, the equivalent of a fast broadband connection at home, HSDPA is known as 3.5G.
The March launch came barely days after T-Mobile launched commercial HSDPA networks in Germany, Britain and the Netherlands and before customers in Finland, France and Italy could access the new services.
“African operators are definitely catching up, or at least following closely behind Europe,” said Devine Kofiloto, principal analyst at Informa telecoms and media research group. “Whether there is a business case (for 3 or 3.5G) is a different question.”
In Europe, 3G was initially promoted for video calls, mobile video and music downloads. When 3G and 3.5G first launched in South Africa skeptics noted that downloading the latest Madonna track was probably not the top priority for millions of Africans who had yet to make their first phone call.
“African markets are essentially voice-centric. What could low-end users possibly use 3G technology to do?” said Kofiloto.
3G and 3.5G coverage rarely extends beyond upmarket urban areas–Alexandra is close to Sandton, Johannesburg’s main business district. But that could be about to change.
Namibia’s MTC said last week it would launch HSDPA before the end of the year. Vodacom, joint owned by Vodafone and fixed-line operator Telkom, is building a 3.5G network in Tanzania and Econet aims to launch the service in Zimbabwe.
Basic mobile phone use has exploded in Africa and many Africans would rather spend scarce spare cash on phone service than on new shoes.
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