African MNOs under pressure from SIM card registration

Henry Lancaster, senior research analyst – Africa at Budde.com analyses the African mobile sector
Africa's mobile market is almost entirely pre-paid.
Africa's mobile market is almost entirely pre-paid.

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Mobile telephony remains by far the dominant telecom service across Africa, accounting for more than 90% of all telephone lines on the continent. Given the very poor condition of fixed-line infrastructure in most markets, mobile internet access as a consequence also accounts for between 95% and 99% of all internet connections.

The size and range of the diverse markets within Africa have contributed to varied market penetration rates between countries. By early 2018 the highest mobile penetration was found in countries including Gabon (163%), Botswana (159%), South Africa (147%) and Mauritius (146%). To some degree high penetration reflects the popularity of consumers having multiple SIM cards despite efforts among most regulators to enforce measures by which operators must register SIM card users. These efforts are largely geared more to removing dormant SIM cards from operators’ databases, and thereby providing a more accurate impression of market dynamics, than of addressing fears that crime and civil disturbances can be facilitated or orchestrated via the use of mobile phones.
At the other end of the scale there are a number of countries in which far greater government direction, market competition and regulatory oversight are still required for the local mobile markets to develop further. These countries include Niger (40% penetration) and Madagascar (39%) as also two which have suffered from considerable civil and economic disruption, South Sudan (20% penetration) and Eritrea (7.5%).

The mobile market in Africa is almost entirely prepaid. Commonly, about 99% of all subscribers are prepaid, since this offer a far more economically manageable means to gain access to voice and data services than does a contract plan. In addition, year-on-year a greater proportion of the continent’s population is able to afford mobile services, leading to a steady increase in the subscriber base. Affordability has been extended by the positive effects on pricing from market competition and by measures to reduce termination rates. In addition, many countries have signed up to regional agreements aimed at reducing international roaming charges. Regional roaming initiatives reduce charges for customers, increase regulated traffic, and curtail grey traffic (the re-origination of long-distance calls). The East Africa One Network Area has been in effect since April 2016, while the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) came into play in December 2016. The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) provides a similar agreement (signed in October 2017) among its 19-member bloc, stretching from Libya in the north to eSwatini (Swaziland) in the south.

While network operators have seen reduced revenue from roaming access, this has generally been recouped from a sharp increase in international traffic.

A few countries within Africa retain incumbent monopolies for the provision of services, while others have seen consolidation among players (largely due to operators such as Airtel and Tigo exiting certain markets or the failure of some poorly managed enterprises). In sum, though, there is effective competition within the mobile sector. This has also encouraged competition for services based on upgraded technologies, which in turn has encouraged investment. Africa remains the main region globally for m-money and m-banking services, for example, and while there is little focus on 5G deployments as yet there is considerable effort being undertaken to upgrade networks from 3G infrastructure to LTE. This process is uneven, since in many areas GSM remains the dominant technology.

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