As mobile internet speeds rise, Africans are spending more time streaming

Around 2015, when video-on-demand services were being introduced in the Kenyan mobile market (fibre-to-the-home was already a “thing” in Kenya’s urban centres by the end of the Naughties), a number of providers partnered with mobile phone operators to optimise bandwidth for faster download speeds.

However, many subscribers would from time to time be forced to move closer to wireless access points, less busy spots or wait until night when traffic was low to watch their favourite movies or TV shows over their smartphones, thanks to patchy internet connectivity and widely varying speeds in the country.

“During this time it would take long before online videos start playing, they would also pause several times during playback and their picture qualities were not as clear,” recalled Justus Ontita, a Kenyan Netflix subscriber and budding gospel artist in an interview with bird.

Today, many people across Africa are able to watch their favourite movies and TV shows seamlessly on YouTube and other streaming apps like Netflix without worrying too much about buffers. They can also listen to favourite songs on platforms like Boomplay and Spotify whether in a Wi-Fi zone or through mobile data.

“Things have changed significantly over the years. It is now easier and affordable for upcoming musicians like me to upload videos and spread them across numerous streaming platforms that are helping reach a global audience,” Ontita said.

Increased investments in undersea cables by government and private players, the proliferation of mobile and associated services and fast-growing demand are all helping to boost internet speeds on the continent.

The work and leisure move online due to the outbreak of Covid-19 further boosted demand. 

Remote meetings and work calls on services like Zoom require at least 1.5 Megabits per second (Mbps) for individuals to make good quality group video calls, while the recommended speed for ultra-high-definition (UHD) streaming on Netflix is 15Mbps (5Mbps for HD). 

For mobile gaming — also growing fast on the continent — speeds of between 3 and 5Mbps are considered fast enough for a seamless experience (though latency — the speed it takes for data to be transferred between its original source and its destination — is also key to internet gaming, particularly group gaming).

A 2021 study commissioned by Newzoo, a games analytics company and Carry1st, a South African gaming platform, shows that the number of gamers in sub-Saharan Africa has risen to 186 million, with the majority of players (95 percent) using mobile phones to play.

Jay Shapiro, chief executive officer of Nairobi-based Usiku Games, said in an interview that two-dimensional (2D) “data lite” casual games like Candy Crush, Wordle and Angry Birds make up the majority of what is played in Africa, but for these, internet speed is not a big deal.

“For those games, connectivity is very important, but the speed of that connectivity is not critical. These are so dominant because Africa is a mobile-first continent,” said Shapiro.

There is also a minority population of Africans playing data-intense games where speeds do matter. These games, Shapiro projected, will increase as people acquire more powerful devices and get connected to high-speed internet.

“In Kenya we have excellent connectivity with solid 4G speeds blanketing almost the entire country. There is a big push for 5G networks to roll out now — much faster here than in the West because of our relationships with China, Huawei — so things will only get better,” said Shapiro.

Kenya is now among 13 African countries with a mean mobile internet speed of above 25Mbps. 

According to the latest speed test Global Index by Ookla, a mobile and broadband network intelligence firm, South Africa has the fastest mean mobile internet speed in Africa, at 58.55Mbps.

Mauritius (48Mbps) and Morocco (45.24Mbps) were ranked second and third in Africa respectively, allowing their mobile audiences to seamlessly stream video content.

Togo (43.31Mbps), Botswana (35.81Mbps), Tunisia (34.27Mbps), Ethiopia (34.15Mbps), Angola (33.28Mbps), Egypt (29.15Mbps) and Mozambique (28.81Mbps) complete the list of the 10 countries with the fastest mobile internet speeds in Africa. 

The global average download speed for mobile is 74.87Mbps, meaning Africa’s best performers still lag behind the rest of the world. However, there are indications that show the continent’s mobile internet speeds are rising faster than elsewhere.

A glaring omission from the top 10 was Africa’s biggest mobile market, Nigeria. The continent’s top economy saw its mean mobile speed rise from 22.73Mbps in April 2021 to the current 25.99Mbps — not enough to make it into the top bracket and a potential throttle on key sectors of the economy, like its booming entertainment sector.

Not all tests are equal, either. 

“Kano showed the fastest median mobile download speed among Nigeria’s most populous cities during Q1 2022 at 19.31Mbps,” according to Speed Test Global Index. 

According to Ookla, most African countries recorded an improvement in speeds, with Mauritius recording the largest margin rise, nearly doubling mean mobile speed (up from 25.14Mbps in April 2021) and pushing it up the global rankings by 17 positions.

Ethiopia, Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, Zimbabwe and Somalia all saw their global rankings jump by at least six positions on rising mobile internet speeds.

These increased speeds are resulting in users spending more time streaming content.

Online video analytics firm, Conviva, showed in its state of streaming Q3 2021 report that Africa recorded the biggest increase in viewing time — at 273 percent — compared to a global average increase of 21%, in terms of year-on-year growth.

Most viewing time was spent using big screens (mostly, smart TV’s) at 57%, with computer viewing at 19% and mobile viewership at 18%.

“Buffering – when the video pauses during playback so it can reload — improved across the board with Africa reaping the most benefit, down 78%,” according to the report.

While total minutes per play in Africa (13.21) was second-lowest after Asia (10.74), the continent recorded the biggest rise in total minutes per play — at 153%.

Deployment of fibre-optic into more schools through collaborative efforts between governments and non-governmental organisations and putting up regulations that allow satellite internet providers like Starlink to operate in markets like Kenya have been tipped as among ways that will bolster access to high-speed internet to remote parts of the continent.

Shapiro also called for a bigger push for high speed mobile internet penetration.

“Adoption of Fixed 5G wireless by the telco’s on a competitive basis, or possibly allow a new market entrant providing just that, to bypass the need for expensive trenching to reach remote communities,” he said. – bird story agency

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