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South Africa sets Africa’s pace on WiFi connectivity

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 27 Jul 2023
Some African smartphone users never connect to WiFi.
Some African smartphone users never connect to WiFi.

South African smartphone users are miles ahead of their continental peers when it comes to utilising WiFi services.

Mobile analytics company Opensignal found South Africa is one of two countries where smartphone users are more likely to connect to WiFi as opposed to mobile-only internet.

The company this morning released its report titled: “African smartphone users see a diverse mobile experience across the continent”.

Based on data collected between March and May, the report examines the experience of smartphone users across the 15 African markets, including SA. These are countries with the highest numbers of unique mobile subscribers, according to GSMA Intelligence.

Opensignal’s data shows a substantial share of mobile-only internet users, who never connect to WiFi services and rely only on mobile connectivity for data transfers.

In SA and Egypt, 63.4% and 51.6% of users, respectively, connect to WiFi.

“In eight out of the 15 analysed markets, more than 40% of mobile-only users never connect to WiFi. In three markets − Uganda, Sudan and Ghana − more than half of smartphone users only use mobile networks,” says the report.

The data further shows that in many African markets, users connect sporadically to WiFi services.

“Smartphone users spend only 8.7% of their time on WiFi in Sudan, 11.9% in Ghana, and 12.5% in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“On the other hand, smartphone users in SA spend the most time on WiFi across the observed markets − 58.6% − followed by Egypt, with nearly half of the time connected to WiFi services. These are average values across all smartphone users.”

Opensignal highlights that mobile connectivity is the main, and often only, means of access for many internet users worldwide, especially in low- and middle-income markets. This is due to the limited access to relatively costly fixed broadband internet services, especially in rural and remote areas.

For markets like SA, WiFi has become synonymous with providing ubiquitous connectivity, as mobile data costs still remain relatively high for many.

Over the years, various interventions from private, public and non-profit bodies have been rolled out to boost public WiFi access. Schools, hospitals, office buildings, malls, public buildings, community centres, bus stops and public transport, to name a few, offer WiFi capabilities.

Telecoms regulator the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa recently openedthe lower 6GHz spectrum band for the provision of WiFi services.

The spectrum will provide a much-needed boost for WiFi availability and uptake, and is expected to enable faster data communications between devices connected to wireless infrastructure, reduce latency, improve efficiency and data throughput.

Similarly, the South African government has committed to deploy close to 10 000 WiFi hotspots to boost connectivity across the country.

South African smartphone users don't shy away from WiFi connectivity.
South African smartphone users don't shy away from WiFi connectivity.

Download queens

The Southern African nation hasn’t only taken the lead in terms of WiFi usage, but Opensignal indicates it is first for download speed experience, with the fastest download speeds among the 15 analysed markets.

According to the analysis, SA’s download speed experience score reached 27.3Mbps, which is 16.8% faster than second-placed Morocco.

Egypt and Kenya are in a statistical tie for third place, with scores of 16.2Mbps-16.3Mbps.

North African nation Morocco takes the lead for upload speed experience, with a score of 7.5Mbps – beating Algeria by 1.3Mbps (21.7%).

SA and Kenya jointly take third place, with scores of 5.7Mpbs-5.8Mbps. Meanwhile, Sudan is last for both download speed experience and upload speed experience, with scores of 5.7Mbps and 2Mbps, respectively.

“Smartphone users in SA enjoy the most consistent mobile network experience in Africa, as the market leads with a score of 50.9%. This is 4.9 percentage points ahead of second-placed Egypt and 5.6 percentage points ahead of third-placed Morocco,” reads the report.

“These scores reflect the percentage of tests in which smartphone users’ experience on a network is sufficient to support the requirements of more common demanding applications, such as video calling, uploading an image to social media, or using smart home applications.

“In Ghana, Sudan and Côte d'Ivoire, the percentage of successful tests was below 10%, with Ethiopia and Cameroon scoring as low as 0.1%. These relatively low scores are likely due to the high usage of old 3G technology in those markets.”

South Africa leads its counterparts in terms of download speed experience.
South Africa leads its counterparts in terms of download speed experience.

Older networks still rule

Even though 4G is becoming commonplace in Africa, some smartphone users on the continent are still connected to older network generations like 3G, or even 2G.

The GSMA’s head of Sub-Saharan Africa previously indicated that only 22% of the region’s population access 3G and 4G internet.

Opensignal’s data shows smartphone users in Ethiopia and Angola spend more than 40% of their time connected to 3G services. By contrast, users in Uganda, Ghana and Sudan spend more than 30% of the time connected to 3G.

The mobile analytics firm notes that limited spectrum bandwidth, together with heavy use of 3G connectivity and lower maximum data transfer rates, adversely affect the quality of the overall mobile network experience in African markets.

Even 2G is still notable in some African markets. For example, smartphone users spend more than 5% of their time connected to 2G in Angola, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania. However, in SA and Morocco, users spend just 1.9%-2% of their time on 2G.

Smartphone users in Sudan, Morocco, Angola and Cameroon spend the highest proportion of time with no signal among African markets, ranging from 3.3% to 4.9% of the time.

SA is the leader in terms of time smartphone users spend connected to 4G or better services – 85.6% of the time.

“The extent of 3G usage is due to the cost of mobile infrastructure (backhaul, security at base stations), energy (fuel and generators) and local deployment regulator fees – along with many users still reliant on older and simpler mobile devices, not enabled for newer generations.

“Solar power cells are one of the potential solutions for deploying base stations in remote areas, while the production of low-cost and more affordable smartphones can help users access mobile services more easily and boost their experience when using the internet for work, education and entertainment.”

Older network generations like 3G still dominate in some African markets.
Older network generations like 3G still dominate in some African markets.

5G has far to go

Even though Kenya, Nigeria and SA have already deployed 5G networks, the presence of 5G connectivity is poor on the continent, says the Opensignal report.

The assessment echoes the findings of June 2023 Ericsson Mobility Report, which shows that for the Sub-Saharan Africa region, 5G adoption is still nascent, with investments continuing to be channelled towards deploying 3G and 4G networks.

South African mobile network operators, for example, have begun rolling out 5G services in the country, albeit still mostly concentrated in the big cities.

Opensignal notes SA has a more substantial number of 5G subscriptions, while others observe only several thousand 5G users. Further development of seamless and reliable mobile connectivity in Africa is essential for the markets’ economic growth, especially given the high numbers of mobile-only users, it adds.

“The road to ubiquitous 5G in Africais likely to be a long one, as access to 4G is still not universal and manyusers still rely on 2G and 3G networks to connect to the mobile internet.”