SA can’t be competitive until connectivity is everywhere, for everyone

2018-06-20 01:00

Fundamental to the Fourth Industrial Revolution is the availability of ubiquitous ICT infrastructure.

But while the likes of artificial intelligence, self-driving cars and augmented reality might seem far-fetched for many South Africans, the country cannot be competitive if connectivity is not a national priority.

The International Telecommunication Union – the United Nations specialised agency for information and communication technologies – within its Connect 2020 Agenda, has made it a goal to bring 60% of the world’s population online by 2020.

However, if we are to tackle the large offline populations, we need to find replicable solutions that can be scaled to connecting the large rural offline populations at minimal costs, and finding effective strategies for narrowing the usage gaps across all regions – and wi-fi could be that solution.

Overcoming obstacles

While the story of mobility is an empowering one, it is not without its own challenges. Being mobile means people have access to information wherever they find themselves.

This also means that end users are less reliant on fixed infrastructure for their connectivity needs.

For a continent that is well-known for its entrepreneurial drive, this mobility gives people the ability to manage their own businesses from the convenience of a handset.

However, the reality of being mobile comes at a price.

One of the most problematic aspects around being connected in South Africa remains firmly rooted in how much mobile data costs.

While mobile operators have been making moves to reduce these expenses, it is taking far too long to be of significant benefit to the end user.

Enter wi-fi

All of this points to a changing of the guard in terms of data access. The time for wi-fi in Africa has arrived.

Traditionally, this was the exclusive domain of airport lounges, businesses, and a limited number of high-end restaurants.

However, new technology has made it possible (and affordable) for the roll-out of wider wi-fi networks in cities and metros than before.

Providing infrastructure and connectivity allows businesses to gain a footing and start to thrive and as the opportunities grow – so too does the innovation.

Connectivity is more than just accessing a website, it is the gate-way for innovators and creators to work together, to code, to build purpose-built apps, connect with business contacts and entrepreneurs, connect their potential customers, learn, utilise social media for exposure for example – ultimately, giving the South Africans an opportunity to compete in the digital age.

Take the townships for example. Just think of all the spaza shops across townships like the V-Cafe in Diepsloot.

Giving this sector access and affordable access at that will go a long way to not only opening up new opportunities, but also allows those current entrepreneurs and business to flourish and grow.

What’s more, connectivity boosts job creations. Years ago, the field of entrepreneurship was viewed as somewhat “left field” but in this digital age today, it is viewed as one of the most important tools to solve unemployment.

Empowering individuals is key to creating positive mindsets in order to increase the number of entrepreneurs in the future.

When people living in the townships get access to connectivity and wi-fi, they would be able to save money if they could go online and complete their CVs and submit them as opposed travelling to the city centre to do the same thing.

Additionally, job seekers would be able to make use of social media to share their work experience and employment status to get jobs and continue providing for their families.

This will also result in creating a positive eco-system that not only benefits individuals, but communities at large.

With connectivity and wi-fi, businesses have the opportunity to grow and new start-ups can be created and as a result, employment opportunities are created.

Start-ups that develop organically are almost solely the drivers of job growth and job-creation.

The more businesses thrive and innovation is at the heart of entrepreneurs, the more people or communities are able to connect, do business or receive necessary help or assistance.

In turn, the more development and upliftment takes place. The more this happens, the more quality of life is increased – and so the cycle repeats for generations to come.

Digital transformation

We all know that fixed-line access is virtually unheard of in rural communities and people rely on their mobile phones for anything from staying in touch with loved ones to doing business.

Having wi-fi networks in place in these communities suddenly presents people with options they would not normally have had due to the high cost and limitations of other broadband solutions.

Wi-fi has a significant role to play here as, not only is it a cost-effective way on connecting citizens, but it can be easily deployed as there is no license required to carry out this function.

Additionally, there isn’t a massive infrastructure requirement so it’s achievable especially across geographically dispersed rural areas.

What’s more, many rural towns have no broadband, purely from a cost perspective, and as such wi-fi provides an alternative to bring broadband to rural areas for much less than what they would pay for 3G or fibre.

Running fibre to tens of thousands of small cells just isn’t feasible. And while microwave is useful, it requires licensed spectrum and line of sight.

Wi-fi is ideal for this application because it can provide high-speed, non-line-of-sight connectivity between nodes much more economically.

However, it must have carrier class reliability, be able to adapt to always changing wireless environment and it must be high speed.

There’s nothing worse than having bad wi-fi – especially when the expectation for connectivity is there.

Fibre will certainly provide another necessary means to connect South Africa and Africa to the world and, just like the current undersea cables, will add additional speed, capacity and in maturity, decrease costs of broadband.

However, while fibre and 4G/LTE services will certainly help increase network capacity, it still won’t be enough because as history has taught us there is an insatiable appetite for bandwidth and now, for spectrum as well.

As a result, South Africa is now taking a much more strategic view of wi-fi as we are seeing that wi-fi access has so much potential to shape the business and consumer landscape in Africa and as such, it only makes sense to implement the technology in such a way to draw the most benefit from it.

A recent Ruckus Networks and World Wide Worx Wi-fi in South Africa 2018 study revealed the growing importance of wi-fi for not only business use, but for the roll-out of smart city projects – which 39% of respondents believe will boost the economy, 38% believe it will help attract new business and 19% believe it will improve living conditions.

What’s more, 95.3% of businesses believe that wider availability of wi-fi will contribute to a smart city strategy – which is critical for economic progression.

It’s simple – citizens should have the right to access information – no matter where they are based.

We live on a continent where data is very expensive and, while you may access information via your mobile devices, you’re paying for that. As such, it can be limited.

So there needs to be ways where citizens are able to connect even when they don’t have the data to do so – a complementary medium if you will – and wi-fi provides exactly that.

So, even though mobility has sparked the flame around access, it will be wireless that fuels South Africa into the digital future.

How it does so will be dependent on the effectiveness of wireless connectivity.

Welcome to Witopia!

Riaan Graham is sales director at Ruckus Networks, sub-Saharan Africa

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March 24 2019