* Mobile data to grow by 46 pct annually - GSMA
* Telecoms important for wider economic growth
* Authorities lack know-how, resources to release spectrum
By Helen Nyambura-Mwaura
CAPE TOWN, Nov 25 African governments are
stifling telecoms development by failing to sell more bandwidth
to mobile phone operators, a mistake that could undermine growth
in the world's poorest continent.
After an explosion in the use of mobiles for phone calls,
consumers in countries such as South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya
are increasingly using them to access the Internet.
That requires more spectrum, the range of radio waves set
aside for cellular networks. But many governments in sub Saharan
Africa lack the motivation, know-how and money needed to auction
more bandwidth to meet the demand, industry participants and
analysts say, which bodes ill for economies.
The World Bank estimates that with every 10 percent growth
in broadband penetration, African economies grow by a
corresponding 1.4 percent.
"The governments do not know how to release it and do not
see the importance of prioritising the release of spectrum,"
said Peter Lyons, a director of spectrum policy at GSMA, a
UK-based mobile industry body.
There is little fixed-line broadband infrastructure to carry
the rising data traffic on the continent, so the growing demand
for Internet connection can only be delivered through mobile
networks. More than half of Internet activity is on handsets.
Mobile data is expected to grow by 46 percent annually over
the next four years, according to GSMA. It also expects Africa's
35 million 3G connections to grow nearly five-fold to 160
million by 2016.
"Governments and regulators are not prepared for the coming
growth because they have been dragging their feet in allocating
spectrum to support the mobile data networks," said Lyons.
Many African authorities lack the expertise to run auctions
for spectrum licences. The few engineers and lawyers that have
telecoms experience are already working for the mobile phone
firms and many governments can't afford to hire advisors from
Even when they are in a position to seek outside help, red
tape can get in the way. In South Africa, the continent's most
advanced economy, telecoms regulator ICASA has to get the
communications minister's permission to recruit foreign experts.
One such request sat on the desk of successive ministers for
ICASA says the process of licensing additional spectrum
started last year, but was delayed because it had to consider a
policy paper from the minister.
"ICASA will continue with its process as soon as the policy
direction has been concluded and published," a spokesman for the
Dobek Pater, a telecoms analyst at South Africa-based
consultancy Africa Analysis, said another problem is that some
governments need to find out who holds what spectrum and whether
it can be reallocated from other users, such as the military or
"There are spectrum constraints that we have been running
into in most countries across Africa," Pater said.
Some analysts say many African governments do not fully
appreciate the correlation between mobile growth and economic
GSMA calculates that if the top six markets released new
spectrum, it would create $34 billion in economic growth between
2015-2020, which could translate into 15 million jobs.
In 2011, the industry accounted for 4.5 percent of sub-
Saharan GDP and contributed $32 billion to economies there,
including $12 billion in tax revenue, GSMA said.
"The mobile networks are not necessarily cows to be milked
but a horse to pull the nation forward. And if that horse cannot
breathe, it cannot move forward as fast as it could," GSMA's
(Editing by David Dolan and Erica Billingham)