One seldom thinks of Africa as technology bellwether but in the last decade the continent has seen a rapid adoption of modern technology. Despite lacking the infrastructure of say Europe or North America, the African continent rivals China as the fastest-growing market for devices that support mobile communications.
According to a recently released report by the United Nations, there are now 10 times as many cell phones as land lines in sub-Saharan Africa and on average there are now 48 mobile subscriptions for every 100 people on the continent. With Apple’s announcement that the iPhone 4 would be coming to at least another 17 countries by year’s end, the question is when the revolutionary device will come to Africa.
The short answer is soon. Vodacom, a subsidiary of British Vodafone, has a distribution deal with Apple that includes South Africa and possibly Egypt. The company hopes to have distribution of the high-end phone in place by year's end.
“We have reached an agreement with Nokia to combine and manage networks that will allow us to bring data-intensive smartphones to several countries including Australia and South Africa,” explained Vodacom media relations specialist Clement Teo.
When asked if the iTunes store's music, which has never been offered on the continent, would also be available, Teo could not speak for Apple but did say he expected “the full service offerings”.
The Network Journal reached out to Apple for answers but has yet to receive a response.
According to Vodafone, the real issue limiting distribution of high- end smartphones such as the iPhone has been local infrastructures. Most existing networks across the continent are so called first or second generation networks which were built for voice and limited data throughout.
African countries such as Kenya and Cameroon have had 3G and WiMax networks since 2007. And the earlier-generation iPhones are already available in those countries and South Africa which has had the iPhone for over two years. But the phones are very expensive, since mobile providers outside of the U.S typically don't subsidize the cost of the phone.
A carrier or government-subsidized smartphone using the Apple or Android platforms have the potential to have dramatic impact on the African continent, unlike North America where the devices are primarily seen as Internet and entertainment-consumption vehicles. African healthcare organizations using available Google, Android and standard-messaging platforms are sending patients notifications and reminders for appointments and medication. The UN says that affordable phone plans with two-way video could bring medical care to African villages from health organizations anywhere in the world. But it's not just healthcare that would benefit: distance-education programs could become a widespread reality. The African Council for Distance Education is pushing African nations to develop a technique to deliver an effective and high-level distance-learning system of education across the continent. The linchpin for spreading the programs will be mobile communications devices.
Economically, the iPhone's application development ecosystem could provide a boon to the continent's efforts to become a bigger participant in the global economy.