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Beware The Sweet Seduction of 3G Mobile Broadband Data Hype

By Wayan Vota on August 12, 2013


We have all heard the siren song of 3G or even 4G mobile broadband data changing the dynamics of Internet access across Africa. If you believe the hype, everyone in Africa now has unlimited Internet thanks to their mobile phone.

That just isn’t true.

Take a look at the network coverage map of Zimbabwe and note all the blank, white space where no one gets 3G. Guess what, in all that white space no one gets 2G either – that’s the no coverage zone in one of the richest countries in Africa. Other countries, like Tanzania, have even less coverage.

So before you assume away connectivity barriers by thinking 3G (or even 2G) mobile broadband will suffice for your technology intervention, take a good look at the GSMA’s Mobile for Development Intelligence network coverage maps and start figuring out Internet access Plan B.

And that’s just one of many reasons why public access to ICTs matter in the age of mobile phones.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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7 Comments to “Beware The Sweet Seduction of 3G Mobile Broadband Data Hype”

  1. John Hawker says:

    Pretty well said, add in there that even when African government have been offered other ways to provide internet access to the masses, it’s been turned down.

    And O3B? It’s seen the light and knows where the investment return is, mobile connections.

    Until Africa and other places wonder why USA/Europe?Australia are investing billions in NexGen satellites that provide low cost VSAT internet, at good speeds, (10 mbps down, 2 up) then Africa will never get the masses connected.

  2. Africa needs to continue investment in it’s infrastructure before we can start thinking about improving this coverage map. No point to a 2G/3G device if you can’t recharge it.

  3. Eric says:


    I appreciate the word of caution, but I think the “white space” is a bit misrepresentative unless you underlay a population density map. It looks like the cell coverage follows the main roads and 3G coverage is at major population centers, and I would imagine population density reflects the same. Obviously, the poorest communities are likely far removed from the main traffic arteries, so the impact of 3G and general cell coverage needs to consider what community you are measuring impact for.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Obviously, the poorest communities is who I am thinking about. Those who we often say we are serving and feature prominently in all our marketing material.

      Closer to home, how much did you rely on mobile data in Ethiopia? The only coverage maps I find for Ethio Telecom show it only in the core of major cities – not even along roads.

      • Eric says:

        The opensignal coverage map only use crowdsourcing from smartphones. This makes is highly unrepresentative for Ethiopia.

        I don’t have better maps than that currently, but I can tell you the coverage is definitely better than what’s shown. I’ve downloaded podcasts a couple hours outside of Bahir Dar, and I believe that many of the 700+ district (woreda) capitals have some data connection.

        One way to think of it is to look at this map of ODK Collect Submissions to Formhub. http://blog.formhub.org/2013/06/27/1m-submissions-vizualized/ I’d estimated that at least half those data points were submitted to the cloud over data in the nearest city/town to the point of collection.

        While I definitely concede that the quality of the connection needed to submit data through ODK is way less than for other purposes, this ability alone is hugely transformative.

  4. Timo Luege says:

    Seriously? Zimbabwe is one of Africa’s richest countries? I didn’t know that. How do you calculate “richest” in this case? GDP or GDP per head? I’m asking because I’m wondering whether that statement is still true when you take the distribution of wealth into account. I obviously don’t know the first thing about Zimbabwe but it feels weird to me a that so many Zimbawens would try to leave the country if it really was so rich and they were able to access that wealth. However, for mobile phone networks to be financially feasible I would argue that the distribution of wealth is more important then wealth held in the hands of few.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Zim has more wealth that you might expect. Here is World Bank data on GDP for Zim, Kenya, and Tanzania. http://ow.ly/nTGg0 Zim lead all three (by a wide margin) until 2003 or so, but has come back recently to within passing distance of Kenya.