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Spectrum prices hit consumers in developing markets

Better spectrum pricing policies are needed in developing countries to improve the economic and social welfare of the billions of people that remain unconnected to mobile broadband services, according to a new report.

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The ‘Spectrum Pricing in Developing Countries’ report released by the GSMA today at the Mobile 360 – Africa conference in Kigali. The study reveals that spectrum prices in developing countries are, on average, more than three times higher than in developed countries, when income is taken into account. This high spectrum pricing is a major roadblock to increasing mobile penetration. 

Authored by GSMA Intelligence, the study also found that governments are playing an active role in increasing spectrum prices to maximise state revenues from spectrum licensing. High spectrum prices are linked to countries with high levels of sovereign debt, and alarmingly average reserve prices in spectrum auctions are more than five times higher in developing countries than in developed, once income is accounted for. The report also identifies a link between high spectrum prices and poorer coverage, as well as more expensive and lower quality mobile broadband services, all of which hinder the take-up of services by consumers. 

“Connecting everyone becomes impossible without better policy decisions on spectrum,” said Brett Tarnutzer, Head of Spectrum, GSMA. “For far too long, the success of spectrum auctions has been judged on how much revenue can be raised rather than the economic and social benefits of connecting people. Spectrum policies that inflate prices and focus on short-term gains are incompatible with our shared goals of delivering better and more affordable mobile broadband services. These pricing policies will only limit the growth of the digital economy and make it harder to eradicate poverty, deliver better healthcare and education, and achieve financial inclusion and gender equality.”

The GSMA study assessed over 1,000 spectrum assignments across 102 countries (including 60 developing and 42 developed countries) from 2010 through 2017, making it the largest-ever analysis into spectrum pricing in developing countries, as well as the drivers and their potential impacts of spectrum pricing on consumers. Among the countries included in the analysis are Algeria, Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Egypt, Ghana, India, Jordan, Mexico, Myanmar and Thailand – all markets where spectrum licensing is a priority.

Setting high final prices administratively or setting high auction starting prices (e.g. reserve prices), artificially limiting the amount of licensed spectrum available, not sharing a clear spectrum roadmap, and setting poor auction rules are some of the policy decisions highlighted in the report that are driving high spectrum prices in developing countries.

GSMA Intelligence Releases Latest Mobile Connectivity Index
In related news, GSMA Intelligence today launched its latest Mobile Connectivity Index, which measures the performance of 163 countries (representing 99 per cent of the world’s population) against key enablers of mobile internet adoption. The Index highlights recent progress made on widening access to the mobile internet and explores key roadblocks to adoption, including spectrum policy.

At the end of 2017, 3.3 billion people (or 44 per cent of the global population) were connected to the mobile internet, representing an increase of almost 300 million compared to the previous year. That still leaves more than 4 billion people offline and unable to realise the social and economic benefits that the mobile internet enables. The majority of people that remain unconnected – 3.9 billion – live in developing countries. 

Mobile broadband networks still do not cover 1 billion people globally, and approximately 3 billion people who live within the footprint of a network are not currently accessing mobile internet services. In low-income countries, around two thirds of rural populations are not covered by 3G networks. The Mobile Connectivity Index highlights the importance of factors such as the affordability and quality of mobile broadband services, and network investment in connecting people, both of which can be impacted by high spectrum prices.

“If mobile operators don’t get affordable and predictable access to spectrum, it will be consumers who will suffer the most,” said Pau Castells, Director of Economic Analysis at GSMA Intelligence. “Developing countries have the opportunity to catch up with the developed on mobile adoption; however the investment case in some of these markets is being put at risk. Operators cannot keep paying significantly more for spectrum when consumer incomes and expected profits are much lower in these markets. This is making network investment challenging at a time when policies should encourage the development of the mobile sector to maximise the benefits it can bring to everyone.”

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Online retail gets real

After decades of experience in selling online, retailers still seek out the secret of reaching the digital consumer, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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It’s been 23 years since the first pizza and the first bunch of flowers was sold online. One would think, after all this time, that retailers would know exactly what works, and exactly how the digital consumer thinks.

Yet, in shopping-mad South Africa, only 4% of adults regularly shop online. One could blame high data costs, low levels of tech-savviness, or lack of trust. However, that doesn’t explain why a population where more than a quarter of people have a debit or credit card and almost 40% of people use the Internet is staying away.

The new Online Retail in South Africa 2019 study, conducted by World Wide Worx with the support of Visa and Platinum Seed, reveals that growth is in fact healthy, but is still coming off a low base. This year, the total sale of retail products online is expected to pass the R14-billion mark, making up 1.4% of total retail.

This figure represents 25% growth over 2017, and comes after the same rate of growth was seen in 2017. At this rate, it is clear that online retail is going mainstream, driven by aggressive marketing, and new shopping channels like mobile shopping. 

But it is equally clear that not all retailers are getting it right. According to the study, the unwillingness of business to reinvest revenue in developing their online presence is one of the main barriers to long-term success. Only one in five companies surveyed invested more than 20% of their online turnover back into their online store. Over half invested less than 10% back.

On the surface, the industry looks healthy, as a surprisingly high 71% of online retailers surveyed say they are profitable. But this brings to mind the early days of Amazon.com, in 1996, when founder Jeff Bezos was asked when it would become profitable.

He declared that it would not be profitable for at least another five years. And if it did, he said, it would be in big trouble. He meant that it was so important for long-term sustainability that Amazon reinvest all its revenues in customer systems, that it could not afford to look for short-term profits.

According to the South African study, the single most critical factor in the success of online retail activities is customer service. A vast majority, 98% of respondents, regarded it as important. This positions customer service as the very heart of online retail. For Amazon, investment back into systems that would streamline customer service became the key to the world’s digital wallets.

In South Africa online still make up a small proportion of overall retail, but for the first time we see the promise of a broader range of businesses in terms of category, size, turnover and employee numbers. This is a sign that our local market is beginning to mature. 

Clothing and apparel is the fastest growing sector, but is also the sector with the highest turnover of businesses. It illustrates the dangers of a low barrier to entry: the survival rate of online stores in this sector is probably directly opposite to the ease of setting up an online apparel store.

A fast-growing category that was fairly low on the agenda in the past, alcohol, tobacco and vaping, has benefited from the increased online supply of vapes, juices and accessories. It also suggests that smoking bans, and the change in the legal status of marijuana during the survey, may have boosted demand. 

In the coming weeks, we can expect online retail to fall under the spotlight as never before. Black Friday, a shopping tradition imported “wholesale” from the United States, is expected to become the biggest online shopping day of the year in South Africa, as it is in the USA.

Initially, it was just a gimmick in South Africa, attempting to cash in on what was a purely American tradition of insane sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, which occurs on the third Thursday of November every year. It is followed by Cyber Monday, making the entire weekend one of major promotions and great bargains.

It has grown every year in South Africa since its first introduction about six years ago, and last year it broke into the mainstream, with numerous high profile retailers embracing it, and many consumers experiencing it for the first time. 

It is now positioned as the prime bargain day of the year for consumers, and many wait in anticipation for it, as they do in the USA. Along with Cyber Monday, it provides an excuse for retailers to go all out in their marketing, and for consumers to storm the display shelves or web pages. South African shoppers, clearly, are easily enticed by bargains.

Word of mouth around Black Friday has also grown massively in the past two years, driven by both media and shoppers who have found ridiculous bargains. As news spreads that the most ridiculous of the bargains are to be had online, even those who were reticent of digital shopping will be tempted to convert.

The Online Retail in SA 2019 report has shown over the years that, as people become more experienced in using the Internet, their propensity to shop online increases. This is part of the World Wide Worx model known as the Digital Participation Curve. The key missing factor in the Curve is that most retailers do not know how to convert that propensity into actual online shopping behaviour. Black Friday will be one of the keys to conversion.

Carry on reading to find out about the online retailers of the year.

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Reliable satellite Internet?

MzansiSat, a satellite-Internet business, aims to beam Internet connections to places in South Africa which don’t have access to cabled and mobile network infrastructure, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Stellenbosch-based MzansiSat promises to provide cheap wholesale Internet to Internet Service Providers for as little as R25 per Gigabyte. Providers who offer more expensive Internet services could benefit greatly from partnering with MzansiSat, says the company. 

“Using MzansiSat, we hope that we can carry over cost-savings benefits to the consumer,” says Victor Stephanopoli, MzansiSat chief operating officer.

The company, which has been spun off from StellSat, has been looking to increase its investor portfolio while it waits for spectrum approval. The additional investment will allow MzansiSat’s satellite to operate in more regions across Africa.

The MzansiSat satellite is being built by Thales Alenia Space, a French company which is also acting as technical partner to MzansiSat. In addition to building the satellite, Thales Alenia Space will also be assisting MzansiSat in coordinating the launch. The company intends to launch the satellite into the 56°E orbital slot in a geostationary orbit, which enables communication almost anywhere in Africa. The launch is expected to happen in 2022. 

The satellite will have 76 transponders, 48 of which will be Ku-band and 28 C-band. Ku-band is all about high-speed performance, while C-band deals with weather-resistance. The design intention is for customers of MzansiSat to choose between very cheap, reliable data and very fast, power-efficient data. 

C-band is an older technology, which makes bandwidth cheaper and almost never affected by rain but requires bigger dishes and slower bandwidth compared to Ku-band connections. On the other hand, Ku-band is faster, experiences less microwave interference, and requires less power to run – but is less reliable with bad weather conditions.

MzansiSat’s potential military applications are significant, due to the nature of the military being mobile and possibly in remote areas without connectivity.  Connectivity everywhere would be potentially be life-saving.

Consumers in remote areas will benefit, even though satellite is higher in latency than fibre and LTE connections. While this level of latency is high (a fifth of a second in theory), satellite connections are still adequate for browsing the Internet and watching online content. 

The Internet of Things (IoT) may see the benefits of satellite Internet before consumers do. The applications of IoT in agriculture are vast, from hydration sensors to soil nutrient testers, and can be realised with an Internet connection which is available in a remote area.

Stephanopoli says that e-learning in remote areas can also benefit from MzansiSat’s presence, as many school resources are becoming readily available online. 

“Through our network, the learning experience can be beamed into classrooms across the country to substitute or complement local resources within the South African schooling system.”

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