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Mobile networks holding back financial inclusion

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Out of 7.5 billion mobile users, two billion adults worldwide are unbanked. Although banking institutions offer solutions to bridge the gap, little impact is being achieved on the number of unbanked, says BRIAN RICHARDSON, founder of WIZZIT.

Financial inclusion is a key enabler of sustainable economic and social development. Initiatives by the United Nations and the World Bank Group continue to drive financial inclusion and it has become a priority for regulators and policymakers worldwide.

Out of 7.5 billion people and a mobile phone in almost every pocket, two billion adults worldwide are unbanked. Financial service providers (FSPs), FinTech’s and mobile network operators (MNOs) offer superior solutions to bridge the gap. However, despite the size, reach and power of banks and MNOs, little impact is being achieved on the number of unbanked.

Regulation is often blamed as a major barrier. What doesn’t help either are statements from European Central Bank executive board member Yves Mersch, who has given a spirited defence of cash, praising its ability to facilitate privacy, equality and security, insisting there is “no viable alternative”.

Digitalisation is the key to financial inclusion. Basic transactional accounts should be a birth right, together with a concerted effort by governments to remove cash and to support every effort towards financial inclusion. Illegal and illicit activities such as money laundering and funding of terrorist activities are facilitated predominantly through cash. The sooner we accept this fact, the better. What is urgently required is the removal of cash and the enforcement of policies that promote simple and seamless access to bank accounts for all. This provides full audit trails of every single transaction.

MNO’s have the reach and understand the power of marketing. Banks understand compliance and systems. As a leading global FinTech, WIZZIT International works effectively with all leading MNOs and banks in providing digital financial services. However, instead of embracing mutually beneficial partnerships, MNOs in some countries refuse to give banks access to their Unstructured Supplementary Service Data or USSD gateways.

The bulk of mobile phones in Africa are feature phones and the USSD channel provides functionality that is quick, safe and easily accessible from all mobile phones. For the vast majority, USSD will remain the clear channel of choice for many years to come. To date, it is the most successfully integrated and widely adopted technology for financial services in emerging markets and the lower end of the market.

MNOs in some countries seem to think that by denying banks access, they can create a bigger market for their own financial service offerings. This is most evident in countries like Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo where the unbanked populations are 71% and 89% respectively. This abuse of power is tantamount to anti-competitive behaviour and is creating a major barrier to financial inclusion, something communication regulators should be aware of. The lack of progress in these and other emerging markets may well be the result of the prejudiced practices of Telcos gatekeeping access to the USSD gateway.

As smart phones become more affordable, so will the popularity of app-powered platforms as a channel for financial services. However, until there is a dramatic decrease in the cost of smart phones, the number of feature phones will remain at around 70%. USSD is still therefore critically important and banks will depend on MNOs for access – unless as has happened in some markets, banks get their own MNVO licence and control their own destiny.

A bigger pie or a bigger slice? 

The boundaries between the offerings of banks and MNOs are becoming increasingly blurred – yet the playing fields are not level. In some West African countries, for example, banks are by law not allowed to charge customers for deposits to bank accounts. MNOs, however, are unaffected by these laws and have the freedom to charge for deposits into mobile wallets.

Starting out as a convenient way to buy airtime and send money to family and friends, the financial services offering of MNOs has broadened to include offerings such as savings and loans. This is taking the banks on directly.

It will be argued that banks cannot be all things to all people and effectively service all segments of the market. It will also be argued that bank regulators are not there to protect banks from innovative competition from non-banks such as MNOs, Apple, Samsung, Google, Amazon, Pay Pal and Alipay. However, where governments and global agencies are putting enormous pressure on banks to drive financial inclusion, this is made increasingly difficult where banks are denied access to channels such as USSD.

To collaborate or not to collaborate

The Mobile Banking industry globally started some 12 years ago with WIZZIT (South Africa), Mpesa (Kenya) and GCash (Philippines) recognised as the early pioneers. It is interesting to note that there has not been a single successful partnership between banks and MNOs despite numerous attempts.

Perhaps a truly strategic collaborative model is still a ways off and competition between banks and MNOs is here to stay – at least for the foreseeable future. The question is whether or not this competition is supporting global efforts on financial inclusion through digital financial services.

The way forward

Digitisation and mobile penetration will continue to drive the growing trend of MNOs and FSPs infiltrating each other’s space to gain traction in new services. However, these rapidly blurring lines are bound to spark territorial claims regarding customers. This could impede financial inclusion if it lacks the required consumer protection measures and regulations.

Governments must regulate competitive behaviour amongst all role players and promote cross-sector collaboration towards financial inclusion. It is essential for countries to enforce policies that promote responsible financial access, financial capability, innovative products and delivery mechanisms. Any initiative that promotes financial inclusion should be praised and much work needs to be done.

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When will we stop calling them phones?

If you don’t remember when phones were only used to talk to people, you may wonder why we still use this term for handsets, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK, on the eve of the 10th birthday of the app.

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Do you remember when handsets were called phones because, well, we used them to phone people?

It took 120 years from the invention of the telephone to the use of phones to send text.

Between Alexander Graham Bell coining the term “telephone” in 1876 and Finland’s two main mobile operators allowing SMS messages between consumers in 1995, only science fiction writers and movie-makers imagined instant communication evolving much beyond voice. Even when BlackBerry shook the business world with email on a phone at the end of the last century, most consumers were adamant they would stick to voice.

It’s hard to imagine today that the smartphone as we know it has been with us for less than 10 years. Apple introduced the iPhone, the world’s first mass-market touchscreen phone, in June 2007, but it is arguable that it was the advent of the app store in July the following year that changed our relationship with phones forever.

That was the moment when the revolution in our hands truly began, when it became possible for a “phone” to carry any service that had previously existed on the World Wide Web.

Today, most activity carried out by most people on their mobile devices would probably follow the order of social media in first place – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn all jostling for attention – and  instant messaging in close second, thanks to WhatsApp, Messenger, SnapChat and the like. Phone calls – using voice that is – probably don’t even take third place, but play fourth or fifth fiddle to mapping and navigation, driven by Google Maps and Waze, and transport, thanks to Uber, Taxify, and other support services in South Africa like MyCiti,  Admyt and Kaching.

Despite the high cost of data, free public Wi-Fi is also seeing an explosion in use of streaming video – whether Youtube, Netflix, Showmax, or GETblack – and streaming music, particularly with the arrival of Spotify to compete with Simfy Africa.

Who has time for phone calls?

The changing of the phone guard in South Africa was officially signaled last week with the announcement of Vodacom’s annual results. Voice revenue for the 2018 financial year ending 31 March had fallen by 4.6%, to make up 40.6% of Vodacom’s revenue. Total revenue had grown by 8.1%, which meant voice seriously underperformed the group, and had fallen by 4% as a share of revenue, from 2017’s 44.6%.

The reason? Data had not only outperformed the group, increasing revenue by 12.8%, but it had also risen from 39.7% to 42.8% of group revenue,

This means that data has not only outperformed voice for the first time – as had been predicted by World Wide Worx a year ago – but it has also become Vodacom’s biggest contributor to revenue.

That scenario is being played out across all mobile network operators. In the same way, instant messaging began destroying SMS revenues as far back as five years ago – to the extent that SMS barely gets a mention in annual reports.

Data overtaking voice revenues signals the demise of voice as the main service and key selling point of mobile network operators. It also points to mobile phones – let’s call them handsets – shifting their primary focus. Voice quality will remain important, but now more a subset of audio quality rather than of connectivity. Sound quality will become a major differentiator as these devices become primary platforms for movies and music.

Contact management, privacy and security will become critical features as the handset becomes the storage device for one’s entire personal life.

Integration with accessories like smartwatches and activity monitors, earphones and earbuds, virtual home assistants and virtual car assistants, will become central to the functionality of these devices. Why? Because the handsets will control everything else? Hardly.

More likely, these gadgets will become an extension of who we are, what we do and where we are. As a result, they must be context aware, and also context compatible. This means they must hand over appropriate functions to appropriate devices at the appropriate time. 

I need to communicate only using my earpiece? The handset must make it so. I have to use gesture control, and therefore some kind of sensor placed on my glasses, collar or wrist? The handset must instantly surrender its centrality.

There are numerous other scenarios and technology examples, many out of the pages of science fiction, that point to the changing role of the “phone”. The one thing that’s obvious is that it will be silly to call it a phone for much longer.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube
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MTN 5G test gets 520Mbps

MTN and Huawei have launched Africa’s first 5G field trial with an end-to-end Huawei 5G solution.

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The field trial demonstrated a 5G Fixed-Wireless Access (FWA) use case with Huawei’s 5G 28GHz mmWave Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) in a real-world environment in Hatfield Pretoria, South Africa. Speeds of 520Mbps downlink and 77Mbps uplink were attained throughout respectively.

“These 5G trials provide us with an opportunity to future proof our network and prepare it for the evolution of these new generation networks. We have gleaned invaluable insights about the modifications that we need to do on our core, radio and transmission network from these pilots. It is important to note that the transition to 5G is not just a flick of a switch, but it’s a roadmap that requires technical modifications and network architecture changes to ensure that we meet the standards that this technology requires. We are pleased that we are laying the groundwork that will lead to the full realisation of the boundless opportunities that are inherent in the digital world.” says Babak Fouladi, Group Chief Technology & Information Systems Officer, at MTN Group.

Giovanni Chiarelli, Chief Technology and Information Officer for MTN SA said: “Next generation services such as virtual and augmented reality, ultra-high definition video streaming, and cloud gaming require massive capacity and higher user data rates. The use of millimeter-wave spectrum bands is one of the key 5G enabling technologies to deliver the required capacity and massive data rates required for 5G’s Enhanced Mobile Broadband use cases. MTN and Huawei’s joint field trial of the first 5G mmWave Fixed-Wireless Access solution in Africa will also pave the way for a fixed-wireless access solution that is capable of replacing conventional fixed access technologies, such as fibre.”

“Huawei is continuing to invest heavily in innovative 5G technologies”, said Edward Deng, President of Wireless Network Product Line of Huawei. “5G mmWave technology can achieve unprecedented fiber-like speed for mobile broadband access. This trial has shown the capabilities of 5G technology to deliver exceptional user experience for Enhanced Mobile Broadband applications. With customer-centric innovation in mind, Huawei will continue to partner with MTN to deliver best-in-class advanced wireless solutions.”

“We are excited about the potential the technology will bring as well as the potential advancements we will see in the fields of medicine, entertainment and education. MTN has been investing heavily to further improve our network, with the recent “Best in Test” and MyBroadband best network recognition affirming this. With our focus on providing the South Africans with the best customer experience, speedy allocation of spectrum can help bring more of these technologies to our customers,” says Giovanni.

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