Mobile service providers around the world continue to face an ever-growing number of new challenges in today's fast-moving data-driven marketplace. New demands on bandwidth capacity, competition from apps and OTT players, and 4G expectations represent just a few of the most pressing concerns.
Yet one region in which these challenges are coming together to present a crucial opportunity is Africa and the Middle East. The region's large population, along with surging mobile data use and lack of fixed-line Internet connectivity, represent a tremendous opportunity for mobile data services in the next few years.
Mobile here has advanced more quickly than in other regions, and usage continues to rise. According to data from the GSM Association (GSMA) , 41% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa and 54% of that in North Africa and the Middle East was subscribing to a mobile service as of mid-2015. What's of more interest, though, is the forecast for data use. Between 2015 and 2020, the GSMA reckons the percentage of the population using mobile broadband connections will soar from 24% to 57% in sub-Saharan Africa, and from 34% to 69% in North Africa and the Middle East.
On top of this, the lack of fixed broadband infrastructure, especially in Africa, means that increased mobile data use will make Internet access widely available to many people for the first time in the next few years. At the end of 2014, less than 1% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa had access to fixed-line Internet connectivity, according to the GSMA. In contrast, about 20% had mobile Internet access. Consequently, in this area and others, the fixed-line stage of Internet connectivity is largely being skipped. By 2020, in fact, it's projected that 200 million people in sub-Saharan Africa will gain mobile Internet access and bring the penetration rate to 40%.
These numbers point to huge opportunities, but ones that require careful understanding and planning. As mobile data use continues to grow in Africa and the Middle East, operators will need to have a strategy in place for dealing with the opportunities that present themselves.
Of utmost importance is the expansion of 3G and 4G networks to cater to growing smartphone use. In sub-Saharan Africa, smartphone connections are expected to skyrocket from 160 million in 2015 to 540 million in 2020, according to the GSMA, which reckons smartphone connections in North Africa and the Middle East will rise from 117 million to 327 million over the same period. Due to this rapid increase, there will be an acute need for the further buildout of 3G networks, as well as investment in 4G/LTE infrastructure, as users begin to take advantage of more data-intensive services.
This deployment, however, involves numerous challenges. Besides having to install new equipment and set up new pricing structures and roaming partnerships, operators that are expanding their 3G networks or launching 4G networks must focus first on constructing a backbone that can reach as many of these networks as possible, allowing them to offer the widest coverage for their users. IPX technology could fit the bill as a backbone for 3G, 4G and other next-generation services. At the same time, enabling ubiquitous roaming for these networks requires comprehensive testing of critical roaming processes, like clearing and settlement. IPX could also provide a versatile platform for the completion of this testing.
IPX solutions now can be scaled to fit a number of differing technology specifications. Consequently, operators should look to invest in IPX as a core part of their strategy to be able to meet the demands for their 3G and 4G network deployments.
Fraud and the IoT
With the forecast increase in mobile broadband connections, the Internet of Things (IoT) -- while still accounting for a relatively small part of total connections in the region -- will present a dangerous new problem. As with many technology developments that open up new markets, where money goes, criminals usually follow. Those criminals are now infiltrating IoT systems and uncovering new fraud vulnerabilities.
Indeed, according to an April 2016 GSMA report, the IoT now represents more than 23 billion global connections, including approximately 10 billion machine-to-machine (M2M) connections. With this rapidly expanding world of Internet connections, a new generation of fraudsters has taken root. Connected devices that provide greater convenience and improved services are also collecting and storing vast amounts of consumer data, and creating a number of theft and privacy risks. In South Africa, for instance, a notorious case of IoT fraud has involved traffic lights whose SIM cards have become attractive targets for thieves, who have swiped cards from hundreds of lights in Johannesburg.
But mobile operators face a number of challenges in taking on this fraud. Among them, the sheer number of IoT connections continues to multiply exponentially. At the same time, many IoT connections involve multiple partners and thus remain equally vulnerable at the weakest link in the system. Finally, new mobile technologies, like 4G, involve new processes that are vulnerable to exploitation.
Fortunately, the development of some basic approaches is beginning to offer more effective methods to better counter this growing threat. These include developing a separate IoT strategy, distinct from that used in other areas, and taking advantage of predictive analysis capabilities to respond to fraud patterns. Operators can also use the cloud to offer more cost-efficient and rapidly deployable technologies for dealing with IoT fraud. They should also take a global approach to bringing down criminal networks, coordinating efforts across geographic regions.
Surging data use will soon drive a dynamic phase of mobile development in Africa and the Middle East. This growth will allow operators and users to bypass fixed-line Internet access, but it will also create challenges. With full-scale IPX and IoT fraud protection strategies, companies can guard against some of the dangers.
— Nour Al Atassi, Regional Vice President, Syniverse