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Mobile Connectivity Is Good. Broadband Is Better

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While today’s digital apps are built to deliver exceptional user experiences and business outcomes, they use vast amounts of data to do so. Without the underlying tech infrastructure needed to support the transmission of such data, large sections of underserved populations are being left behind.

The Importance of the Internet

The internet has forever changed how we work, socialize, and collaborate, and it continues to change how we create, share, and consume information, entertainment, and services. According to the World Bank, the digital economy is equal to over 15% of global GDP, and it has grown at 2.5 times the rate of global GDP over the last decade and a half.

As surprising as this may be, the magnitude and impact of the internet are still somewhat underappreciated. Countless new technological innovations and tech-driven capabilities are expected to emerge, as will our ability to connect, interact, and engage with people, things, and services in new, enhanced, and increasingly innovative ways. Governments, decision-makers, and businesses would do well to recognize the opportunity at hand and work toward overcoming the internet access challenges that so many people around the world face. This includes the three billion that do not have internet access of any kind and the hundreds of millions more that have only limited internet access.

Mobile Connectivity vs. Broadband Connectivity

According to official figures, about 75% of Africa’s 1.3 billion population still lacks access to broadband internet. Effective high-speed internet connectivity is recognized as a powerful driver of economic growth, but this only applies if the minimum threshold of 60% penetration and access is reached.

While most would agree that internet connectivity for all is an important goal to achieve, a key question to ask before rolling out connectivity projects and initiatives is whether mobile connectivity is an adequate substitute for broadband connectivity because of the vast differences in cost and deployment time between the two.

First, let’s consider speed. Mobile connections are considerably slower than broadband connections. According to August 2022 figures, the median global mobile connection speed was just under 31 Mbps, whereas the median global fixed broadband connection provided speeds of just under 70 Mbps. Only six countries have average mobile internet speeds of over 100 Mbps, whereas 27 countries have broadband speeds of over 100 Mbps.

Next, consider connection reliability and data transfer limits. Most mobile connections provide internet access via cellular service providers that use GSM or CDMA technologies. These standards allow multiple mobile phone users to share the same digital frequency without causing any interference with each other. Newer technologies such as 3G, 4G, 4G LTE, and 5G (called mobile broadband) offer better performance and speed, but they can be costly to roll out and are typically out of the reach of users in developing countries. Also, cellphone towers and the signals they send and receive can be adversely affected by, for example, the weather, interference from other towers, and changes in the data transmission needs of end-users.

In contrast, broadband uses high-capacity transmission over a wide range of frequencies (a broad band of frequencies) that enables a larger amount of data to be transmitted simultaneously. Broadband is much faster than mobile connectivity and provides access to the highest quality internet services. This includes videoconferencing for telehealth, low-latency gaming, financial applications, and more, all of which require large amounts of data transmission and quick, real-time interactivity. Broadband access is also constant; broadband connections do not drop off because of adverse weather or because of high user, device, or population densities or geographical obstructions such as trees, hills, or buildings.

Broadband is usually provisioned by telephone companies and Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) and fiber connections, as well as wireless and satellite companies for wireless broadband. Electrical utilities can also provide it using Broadband over Power Lines (BPL).

In short, while mobile connectivity can be easier to provision and is cheaper than broadband, it is susceptible to outages, dead zones that cell phone tower connections do not reach, and unreliable connectivity due to weather changes or surges in the demand for bandwidth. Broadband provides stable connections that come with high-bandwidth data transmission capabilities that are needed for large downstream (downloading) and upstream (uploading) needs such as video streaming and home publishing, as well as telehealth, interactive gaming, and many financial and trading applications. The downside, however, is that rolling out broadband services can be expensive and time-consuming, and the average developing country user cannot typically afford the average broadband plan.

The Future of Internet Connectivity in Africa

Coming back to our question earlier, is mobile connectivity an adequate substitute for broadband connectivity? The answer is no. Does that mean we must rely on mobile connectivity where broadband can be difficult to deploy? One company called 3air believes that the answer to that is also no – but only if we can bring the cost of broadband connectivity down so that an average user can afford the service.

Using an innovative mesh network of internet devices, 3air aims to deliver fast, secure, and reliable internet access to millions of people across Africa. 3air’s technology can quickly get people online – even in densely populated cities – within months instead of years and at the fraction of the cost of fiber optic cable and traditional broadband infrastructure.

In an initial pilot project, 3air launched its network in Freetown, Sierra Leone, working in an environment of heavy rain, uneven landscapes, hills, dead spots, and a large population of over one million. Targeting a demographic of users with a purchasing power of less than $5 per day, 3air achieved 95%+ coverage in Freetown, Sierra Leone and can now operate profitably from the trial.

In Africa, where cost, dense urban populations, underserved rural populations, and limited access to resources are all major factors inhibiting internet access, the 3air model is a potential game-changer for the millions of people who need but as yet cannot access the internet.

While many players continue to rely on traditional approaches to getting people online, many more are looking to innovative projects such as 3air to change the narrative and quickly and cost-effectively drive economic growth and digital inclusivity.

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