Don't fight, share: Charles Green (below), of Helios Towers Africa, argues that it is vital for Africa's mobile operators to share infrastructure rather than compete if the telecoms momentum is not to stall.

Author:Green, Charles

Africa is changing fast - and for the better. While huge challenges remain, there is a new sense of optimism across the continent. There is no more obvious sign of this change, and the possibilities it brings, than in the extraordinary way Africa has adopted the mobile phone.

The growth has been staggering. The 16m mobile subscribers in Africa in 2000 have now reached over 500m. So it is no surprise that the mobile communications revolution is widely recognised as a major driver in Africa's economic development. Academic studies have suggested that a 10% increase in mobile penetration rates is linked with a 0.6% rise in economic growth rates.

Danger of stalling

It is also why, of course, there are concerns that this communications revolution - and the progress it drives - is in danger of stalling because of a lack of investment in the necessary infrastructure.

Unless we find ways to extend coverage, the danger is that rural areas will miss out on the opportunities that mobile communications are bringing. It is in these areas, of course, where banks and markets are many miles away and transport links are worst.

Unless we tackle the problem of capacity, the already serious problem of failed connections in many urban areas will worsen.

Even more importantly, we will deny African businesses and individuals the chance to use data services that are rapidly becoming indispensable.

This is already happening. Mobile voice traffic is expected to double between 2009 and 2012. But data growth is even stronger. In some markets in Africa which have 3G coverage, it has already surpassed voice traffic.

Demand will only increase. But at the moment, in many parts of the continent, we simply don't have the bandwidth to deliver these services, let alone meet future demand.

The scale of the investment needed in new infrastructure such as mobile towers to carry signals is large. It has been estimated, that without an increase in the sharing of infrastructure, the number of towers will have to at least double from the present 75,000 over the next five years.

But putting in place and maintaining this infrastructure is becoming increasingly expensive for mobile operators. They are being asked to make this investment when revenues per customer are falling as governments open up their markets to competition.

There are also environmental and health and safety concerns. Few communities or politicians want to see a series of competing towers erected by mobile operators...

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