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Africa hits 557 million mobile users as smartphones may dominate by 2020 —Report

More than half a billion people across Africa now subscribe to mobile services, with the next wave of growth to be fuelled by mobile broadband networks and services that will see the majority of users owning a smartphone by 2020.

A new GSMA study released last week, ‘The Mobile Economy: Africa 2016’ – reveals there were 557 million unique mobile subscribers across Africa at the end of 2015, equivalent to 46 per cent of the continent’s population, making Africa the second-largest – but least penetrated – mobile market in the world.

With much room for potential growth, the report sees the number of unique mobile subscribers hitting 725 million by 2020, accounting for 54 per cent of the expected population by this point.

By then, smartphone connections in Africa will have more than tripled, rising from 226 million in 2015 to 720 million in 2020.

Last year global smartphone penetration stood at 45 per cent, with Africa trailing at 23 per cent. By 2020 Africa will hit 57 per cent, not too far behind the global average of 66 per cent.

The more than 450 million additional new smartphones in Africa will be driven by cheaper devices ( $50 smartphones are now available), a robust second-hand mobile device market, and the continued expansion of mobile broadband networks.

Indeed, the report notes that “African mobile subscribers are rapidly migrating to mobile broadband networks and services, a result of ongoing network rollouts and the increasing availability of affordable mobile broadband devices and tariffs.”

It adds: “Mobile broadband (3G/4G) accounted for just over a quarter of total connections at the end of 2015, but is expected to account for almost two-thirds by 2020. By mid-2016, there were 72 live 4G networks in 32 countries across Africa, half of which have launched in the last two years.”

The number of mobile subscribers in Africa that access the mobile internet also tripled in the last five years, reaching 300 million by 2015, equivalent to a quarter of the African population. An additional 250 million subscribers are expected to become mobile internet users by 2020, bringing the total to 550 million (41 per cent of expected population).

The report wasn’t without its warnings, though. Africa’s mobile growth will slow from a previous CAGR of 11 per cent (between 2010 – 2015) to a rate of 6 percent between 2015-2020, reflecting a global downward trend.

And as GSMA director general Mats Granryd outlined during his event keynote today, there are significant barriers to connecting unconnected populations in the region, including limited network coverage, high cost of mobile ownership, a lack of locally relevant content and a lack of digital skills.